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Students, faculty find new ways to manage pandemic stress and improve mental health

Students got more information Friday on Duke's plan to test for coronavirus.
Students got more information Friday on Duke's plan to test for coronavirus.

From physical activity to time with family, students and faculty have found new ways to relieve the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Mounting stress and increasingly low motivation have affected Duke community members’ mental health this past year. However, some faculty members and undergraduates said these conditions have slightly improved in the spring.

Sophomore Apoorva Das experienced a smooth start to the new year, and that balance has continued through the spring. Das believes a combination of enjoyable classes and good organizational skills have brought her to this point.

“Last semester was hard because my classes were harder, and this semester is my first semester taking classes that I think are actually interesting,” Das said. “My mental health is better, and I feel like I’m good at managing my stress. I’m pretty good at staying ahead, I work out and I spend time with my friends.”

First-year Jack Dugoni started his first year of college in the height of a stressful time for the world.

“I would say that at first, just adjusting to being in college was stressful, like the transition from taking a lot of classes without much work to a few classes with a lot of work,” Dugoni said. “I had no expectations given that so many schools cancelled early on, some before freshmen even arrived. I was just happy to be here.”

Like Das, Dugoni turned to physical activity to relieve his stress. But what began as a simple pastime soon became a thriving community of friends.

“It was a bit of a struggle at first, but luckily early on last semester I found my outlet playing frisbee with some guys in my dorm,” Dugoni said. “That grew into a community across campus that plays a couple times a week. It was good to see that people were dedicated to staying here.”

Alexander Glass, lecturer and co-director of undergraduate studies of earth and ocean sciences, also had a rough fall. Glass refers to his profession as his life and joy, and the switch from face-to-face teaching to spending his afternoons recording asynchronous lectures was devastating. This gloom first materialized before the semester had even begun.

“I was doing very poorly, just preparing for classes again and talking about it and just realizing that it was going to be a long haul,” Glass said. “Teaching asynchronously took away anything and all that I enjoy from teaching, which is interacting with the students. You’re lecturing into a void.”

For Glass, getting through the slump was a battle on two fronts: during his hours as an asynchronous teacher and during his everyday life. His peers were there for him when he needed them the most, and spending time with family was an enjoyable method of stress relief.

“Over the Christmas break, we had wonderful meals, we did puzzles, we watched movies from 20 years ago,” Glass said. “I went back to all of the things that I knew I enjoyed in the past and overloaded on that. And on top of that, my colleagues and superiors have been incredibly supportive, and I feel very blessed by that.”

It was similarly challenging for Lisa Merschel, senior lecturer of romance studies. Since the most important part of any language class is communication, Merschel found it difficult to keep her students engaged over Zoom.

“Teaching world language online is indeed challenging,” Merschel wrote in an email. “A bright side to remote teaching is the number of conferences that have come about in the last year focused on teaching and learning online. It takes extra effort to communicate and create a sense of community when by default students are on mute.”

Like Glass, Merschel has managed her stress by spending time with her family, in addition to hiking and listening to new music. 

“I’m a naturalist at heart, so I enjoy walking through the woods listening to bird songs, and am now watching spring ephemerals emerge,” Merschel wrote. “In the last year, I’ve read aloud to my daughter the ‘Harry Potter’ series, ‘The Hobbit,’ ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and now ‘Percy Jackson.’ I’ll remember this year in part as the year of reading a couple million words aloud.”

For students and faculty struggling to manage their stress and stay motivated, Glass encourages everyone to try their best to keep going, but also to acknowledge the pressure and allow time off as needed. 

“Normal, healthy human beings should feel incredibly stressed out about all of this,” Glass said. “We aren’t hard-wired to do this. I think a lot of people have learned to have empathy for themselves and to be less self-critical, and to have empathy for others.”

If you are looking for remote or in-person mental health resources, you can find them in guides created by The Chronicle and Duke Student Government

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