If this past year has taught me anything, it’s how important it is to care for our mental health. While COVID has changed many facets of our lives, one of the positives to come out of the pandemic is our collective willingness to be candid about our mental health and the difficulties that we’ve been facing in our daily lives. By challenging the stigma associated with mental health issues, we can create an open and supportive environment and work together to care for ourselves and others around us.
At UCI, the health and well-being of our students are always our top priority. This is why it’s important for faculty, staff, and other members of the Anteater community to understand the common challenges that students face and how we can help. With this goal in mind, I’m excited to work with the UCI Counseling Center to gain better insight on mental wellness and share their expertise with the larger UCI audience. This way, we can better identify students who may need help and know where to refer them to.
Between social distancing, shelter-at-home mandates, and the closure of public spaces, I know that I am not the only one who struggled with feeling isolated and disconnected during the pandemic. Even though I was surrounded by family and technology offered ways to connect, it was difficult to be separated from friends, colleagues, and loved ones outside of my immediate family.
As UCI went fully remote due to health and safety concerns, our students had to rapidly transition to a learning environment where they could no longer attend class on campus, meet with classmates for projects and study sessions, talk face-to-face with their instructors, and do so many other things that had defined their college experience. For many of our students, the pandemic meant moving away from friends and adjusting to a world where connection was dependent on the strength of their Wi-Fi.
Naturally, these difficult conditions made it so that even the most extroverted individuals had trouble reaching out to friends and loved ones. At the height of the pandemic, it became clear to me and many of my colleagues that feeling isolated and lonely was a major concern for our students. To learn more about the effects of isolation and feelings of loneliness, I met with Dr. Christine Catipon from the UCI Counseling Center to gather her professional insight.
Dr. Catipon is a Senior Staff Psychologist at the UCI Counseling Center, where she provides individual therapy sessions for UCI students. She also serves as the liaison to the UCI LGBT Resource Center (LGBTRC), where she offers drop-in hours and supports programming offered by the LGBTRC. Dr. Catipon is also part of the Counseling Center’s Outreach Committee, which organizes campus programming to share information about mental health, wellness, and related topics.
Dr. Catipon explains that working with college students is the best part of her job because she admires how resilient and hardworking they are. Recognizing that students have to navigate so many new challenges, she is passionate about her work because it allows her to offer support in any way she can. With the pandemic certainly introducing challenges that no other students in history have ever had to overcome, I was interested in Dr. Catipon’s insights on how the pandemic has heightened feelings of loneliness for our students.
Vice Provost Dennin: Hi, Dr. Catipon! Thank you for joining me to discuss feelings of isolation and loneliness. I think most of us know what being lonely feels like, but how do you define loneliness, and what are some of the negative effects of ongoing feelings of loneliness?
Dr. Catipon: When I think of loneliness, I think of it as the desire to be around others but being unable to due to a variety of factors.
I think for many of our students, feeling lonely or cut off from others can lead to a lot of negative mental chatter. When you don’t have the same social outlets or distractions, it can be harder to avoid negative thoughts that leave you feeling hopeless or insecure. Particularly with the pandemic, many students may be dealing with thoughts like “Is this ever going to end?” or “Will things ever go back to normal?” I’ve also seen many students doubting their personal relationships. They think, “Oh, I haven’t heard from these people. They must not really like me. They’ve forgotten about me. I don’t know if we were ever really close.” And these kinds of thoughts are often created by the situation and not so much by reality, but they can really overwhelm us because we’re not getting any evidence to challenge them. We’re kind of just sitting there feeling lonely and isolated, and nothing is really happening to change these thoughts.
On an emotional level, I’ve been seeing a lot of sadness with my students. And oftentimes irritability and anger come along with sadness. I think that many people are realizing that they’re more short-tempered or cranky than usual but not necessarily connecting this with feeling lonely and sad. Many students may also be feeling more anxious. When we feel like we don’t have people to talk to or emotional outlets to connect with, this can increase feelings of stress and anxiety because everything is getting pent up—it can feel like there’s no way to escape.
Because feeling lonely or isolated can lead to a build-up of stress, you can also experience physical effects like muscle tension or fatigue. Some people may also suffer from headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and just feeling sort of “blah.” We have to remember that it’s not just the pandemic that is causing distress. There are social justice issues, concerns about family and loved ones, and financial stresses. With everything going on right now, we’re all holding a lot of emotional and mental weight, and feeling isolated means that many of us are just holding this in without realizing that this is contributing to our physical state.
Vice Provost Dennin: Speaking of the pandemic, why do you think the pandemic has caused such an increase in feelings of isolation?
Dr. Catipon: Well, the obvious answer is that we’ve all had to isolate from each other. For many students, UCI transitioning to a remote campus environment meant losing in-person connections with faculty, TAs, staff, classmates, and friends. Even though many students moved home to be with family, they couldn’t necessarily meet with hometown friends or extended family members due to health and safety concerns. When you can’t leave the house and feel sort of trapped, it’s easy to feel lonely even if you are technically around others.
Vice Provost Dennin: I can certainly relate to that. Even though I was lucky enough to quarantine at home with my family, I missed getting to speak with my UCI friends and colleagues on a daily basis.
Dr. Catipon: Exactly, and missing your friends and feeling disconnected is totally normal given the circumstances. But this is where things can get a bit tricky because it can be difficult for students to recognize when feelings of loneliness progress to a level that they should perhaps be concerned about and seek help for.
Vice Provost Dennin: Are there signs or indications that signal “Hey, maybe this isn’t so normal. Maybe I should talk to someone about this?”
Dr. Catipon: I advise students to step back and look for any significant changes from how they normally are. Any time there’s a shift in their mood, in their energy level, or in the way that they interact with others, I think this is usually a telling sign that there’s something deeper going on. For instance, if you find that you’re less motivated than usual, or if you’re noticing that you’re feeling sadder or angrier than you were before, then these can be indicative of a more serious problem.
Feelings of isolation might look similar to depressive symptoms because they are often symptoms of depression or sadness. So, things like difficulty concentrating or staying motivated and changes in eating or sleeping habits are things to be aware of. You might also notice that you no longer enjoy the things that you used to. You may not be interested in these activities or feel like you don’t have the energy to do them anymore.
And then, sometimes intense loneliness causes us to intentionally withdraw from others. Even though we feel lonely, we don’t want to burden people with our problems, and so we might withdraw even further. If you start to notice some of these changes in yourself, then it’s definitely worth seeking help.
Vice Provost Dennin: Absolutely, and I definitely recommend that students check out the Counseling Center for helpful resources and individual counseling. I also encourage UCI faculty and staff to refer students to the Counseling Center if they suspect that a student may be dealing with feelings of isolation. In addition to this, what are some of the things that students can do to stave off feelings of loneliness?
Dr. Catipon: I really push students to try and reach out to their friends and loved ones. As I mentioned before, a lot of students are hesitant to reach out because they don’t want to burden others. Sometimes, it’s easy to feel like we are alone in our thoughts and that we’re the only ones feeling isolated. But I like to remind students that their friends are also probably feeling the same way they are. They’re likely feeling a bit lonely and isolated and would appreciate having someone reach out to them. And the students who do take the initiative often come back to me excited because once they’ve opened that door, they’ve been in regular contact with their friends and have plans to connect further.
If you’re living with others, I also recommended scheduling time to hang out with them. When you’re working or studying from home, it can be easy to isolate yourself from the ones you live with. So, whether it’s your family or roommates, try to make time for a meal together or have a movie or game night together. Actually arranging this time will encourage you to interact and can help keep some of those feelings of isolation at bay.
I also think this is a really good time to have social media, the Internet, and things like Zoom or Facetime because they help us stay connected to others. Even though it may be virtual, I recommend planning dates where you can catch up with your friends and loved ones. When there is a set plan and a confirmation that the other person wants to see and talk to you, I find that it makes it easier to connect on a meaningful level.
As more people get vaccinated, I also think it’s great to enjoy safe, socially-distanced get-togethers. There’s plenty of activities that you can do safely, and just getting out of the house and into the fresh air can really help stave off feelings of loneliness.
And then finally, if none of those things work, you can always talk to a professional. We have so many amazing therapists at the Counseling Center, and we have lots of different ways to combat isolation and loneliness that are specific to each person’s needs, social factors, cultural factors, and so on. This has been a very broad overview on feelings of isolation and loneliness, but when you work with the experts at the Counseling Center, we can help tailor a personalized treatment plan for each individual that targets their specific thoughts and physical concerns. Also, because isolation or loneliness can be a sign of depression, talking to a professional can also help you recognize and address this issue before anything gets worse.
The Counseling Center also offers a couple of group therapy programs that can help students address social concerns. We have one called Overcoming Social Anxiety and another one called Authentic Connections that focuses on connecting with others in a way that feels genuine. So, if you feel like you have trouble reaching out and establishing authentic relationships, these groups can really help.
Vice Provost Dennin: Thank you for all this information! I feel like I’ve learned a lot from this conversation, and I know it will help students, faculty, and staff as well. Again, I just want to thank you for sitting down with me and sharing your professional insights!
The UCI Counseling Center offers a variety of services and resources for students who may need additional support. All currently enrolled UCI students can access free Counseling Center services. Students can sign up for individual therapy appointments, join group therapy sessions and workshops, and receive referrals for off-campus mental health services on their website here. The Counseling Center also provides online self-help services. To determine which type of service is right for you, students can check this helpful guide here.
The Counseling Center has also compiled a list of mental health resources for students, faculty and staff, and parents and families. Their site also features a large collection of wellness resources covering topics such as managing stress during the pandemic, self-care during quarantine, and much more.
While the health and wellbeing of our students should always be a top priority, I want to remind UCI faculty and staff that their mental health is also important. If you need additional support, please know that UCI has services and resources to help. I encourage you to reach out to your supervisor or explore the UCI Faculty/Staff Support Services website here to learn about your many options. Faculty/Staff Support Services is a free and confidential resource available to all faculty and staff.