With the current state of the pandemic, it is no surprise that many people are struggling with their mental health. In fact, many students at Concord Academy are probably facing struggles or know someone else who is. With all of this uncertainty in unchartered territory, I decided to ask Jeff Desjarlais, the Director of Health and Student Support Services, some questions about mental health and how it may be affecting members of the CA community. 

Jeff Desjarlais
Photo Courtesy of Concord Academy

To start, what is mental health? Jeff explained, “the short version is mental health is how we manage the world cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally. Basically, ‘what am I thinking? What am I feeling? And what am I doing?’” He compared mental health to physical health, explaining, “everyone wakes up in the morning and they check in: ‘do I have a headache? My elbow is sore. I’m hungry.’ Our body sends us messages and we figure out how to answer them depending on how our body is telling us. Our emotional health is the same way: ‘What am I thinking? What am I feeling? And what am I doing?’”

When asked about how the transition back to remote learning may affect student’s mental health, Jeff explained that all of the transition and disruption that people are experiencing – and how people think and feel about it – affects the way that people behave. He reminded us that “people are really different… the real answer is everyone is going to experience it differently, and we have no idea. I know lots of introverts who love being remote… and I know some extroverts for whom March and April and May were terrible… we don’t know about people’s resilience, and level of emotional management and regulation. Some people handle upset and disappointment better than others, some people see a situation as half-full instead of half-empty.” He also highlighted the fact that the way someone feels about the situation they are in may vary day to day, “On Tuesday you might be missing your friends, on Wednesday you might be thinking ‘wow I love going to this chat room in my English class, it is much better than HyFlex.’ Every day is going to be different.”

At the Community Meeting last week, the Counseling Center discussed the importance of connections. So, what sort of connections can we have when we are doing all-remote learning? What is the Counseling Center doing to help this to happen? Jeff acknowledged how social people are as human beings. He pointed out that at school, we used to have hug lines every day, sit in large groups at lunch tables, and now we can’t touch at all, which affects the way that people feel. He also explained that even when the school tries to offer something, “what we offer is a poor replacement.” He explained that even though the Counseling Center does zoom sessions and telehealth, “we can’t relate in the same way… [But]even though the things that we used to do to help people are harder, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them, it’s just harder to connect.” 

Although CA is doing hybrid learning right now, at the end of the STAC, the community will be transitioning back to all remote until the start of 2021. Many people are dreading this experience, which raised the question: how will this transition back to remote learning affect the mental health of students? One of the main points that Jeff made in his response to this question was how much Thanksgiving and other upcoming holidays will be different. Normal traditions like spending holidays with large numbers of family and friends and going on vacations won’t be able to occur, so “How does that make people think, feel, and behave?… A lot of these things around the transition, around HyFlex, are important to talk about, but I also think there are a lot of other losses that are going to be happening in the next three months around family, around ritual, around tradition and travel, and that’s going to affect a lot of people’s moods too.” 

Like Jeff said, the upcoming months are going to get colder and darker, and some people’s friends will be living further. So in these feelings of isolation and it being difficult to find ways to see people, what suggestions does the Counseling Center have? “Whether you are an adult, whether you are a student, whether you are a family member, this is an isolating experience. Whatever you can do to connect with people, even if you have to wear three jackets and go outside. Even if you have to text or message or whatever you need to do, especially in this winter coming up – and it’s kind of counterintuitive – the worse you feel, the more you need to connect, but you don’t feel like you want to. You have to try and fight through that and still connect with people the best you can.” Even though he acknowledges that interacting with people won’t feel the same, it is important to maintain connections as best as possible. “Human beings need each other.  Now more than ever, keep reaching out and connecting and we can get through this together.”