Written By: Jonathan Hill
WACO, Texas (Oct. 27, 2020) – October marks the halfway point to the fall semester and can carry all the excitement, stress and anxiety of another academic term winding to a close. The month also typically marks one of the busiest times of the year for university counseling centers across the nation.
With unique challenges in 2020 related to COVID-19, the University has acknowledged those hardships for all in the Baylor Family by taking the initiative to focus on mental health throughout October.
Baylor University’s Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D., LMSW, associate dean for research and faculty development and associate professor in the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, is an expert on mental health, primarily anxiety and depression, as well as religion and spirituality in clinical practice.
In this Q&A, she shares tips and resources to students, faculty and staff who are facing all of the typical challenges of another mid-term while also navigating a global health crisis.
Q: The 2020 fall semester provided challenges and obstacles never seen before in higher education. Why has COVID-19 been a uniquely stressful influence on the mental and spiritual well-being of students, faculty and staff?
There are a number of reasons COVID-19 has been a uniquely stressful influence on the mental and spiritual well-being of those in higher education. First, there are the unanticipated layers and learning curves of new considerations and adjustments to course delivery, safety protocols, dining, campus activities and communication, to name a few, on top of the typical adjustments and emotions we all navigate at the beginning of each fall semester.
Second, those in higher education entered fall 2020 without the “typical” summer that’s needed to reset, make adjustments and plan for the upcoming year’s activities. For example, many administrators, faculty and staff spent the summer not only planning for the usual upcoming academic year but also reconfiguring classes to be hybrid or online or simultaneously include both in-person and online students, in addition to modifying student activities and faculty research project timelines and plans. For degree programs that include internships, like social work, there have also been additional layers of consideration in order to comply with our professional accreditation standards.
Third, we recognize that many students, their family members, as well as Baylor faculty and staff members’ loved ones, have been affected by the economic impact of COVID-19, adding a layer of financial stress.
Fourth, many within the Baylor community – staff, faculty and students – have needed to juggle childcare and homeschooling their children as they continue to engage in their own work and/or educational expectations.
Finally, the fear of contracting COVID-19, especially among the most vulnerable and high-risk populations, has been constantly present.
Not only are we adjusting to this academic year with new ways of being and new protocols that keep us and one another safe, we’re also facing unexpected waves of fear and layers of grief for the missed events, opportunities and connections we had hoped to experience.
As resilient as our community is, I think it’s important to remember we cannot “operate as usual” because things aren’t usual. Instead, we must allow ourselves and one another the time, margin, flexibility and grace needed to sit with and move through the rising emotions, grief, stress, loneliness, fear and uncertainty as they come. We cannot skip or bypass these emotions, but instead, must move through them, often with the support of loved ones and/or a trained mental health care provider.
Q: Mental and spiritual health are challenging during even a typical semester experience. What are some of the effects and reactions you’ve witnessed to these circumstances among students, faculty and staff compared to a non-COVID-19 semester?
As human beings navigating a global pandemic to the best of our ability, our mental and spiritual health have all been impacted to some degree this semester as we have individually and collectively faced a number of unexpected difficulties. I have also seen a beautiful response to the reality of this collective struggle in my interactions with Baylor faculty, staff and students that includes deep empathy for one another and an increase in valuing authenticity as we engage in the high-quality, meaningful work we each do.
It has been a gift to witness Baylor community members holding space for colleagues’ and students’ vulnerability as we admit this is hard for various reasons and recognize that we cannot just push our way through this season. When we admit this isn’t easy and that we are all juggling so much to the best of our ability through thick layers of uncertainty, it gives those around us permission to admit their experiences, too. In fact, I think when we create space for that shared vulnerability and empathy in our interactions with others, we can better assess the current situation, remain present to one another and discern what steps are needed to move forward together, particularly because we’re not carrying an additional layer of effort pretending that everything is fine.
That said, the Garland School of Social Work conducted a couple of well-being surveys since this summer to internally check in on how our faculty and staff are coping with this season and identify the biggest stressors they’re facing and sources of support. Our faculty and staff have also been continually checking in on our students through this season. Not only do we see many noting the same stressors that we’re all facing these days, normalizing how difficult this is for each of us, but the act of nonjudgmentally holding that space for ourselves and one another has been a tangible step of offering the care we know is uniquely woven into the Baylor experience.
Q: How can individuals within the campus community tend to their spiritual health to close out the semester?
I would invite readers to take a moment to pause and identify a few spiritual practices that uniquely support them well, even if that means thinking back to less stressful seasons. The key to note here is that these are practices which require regular engagement, similar to if we were to practice a new instrument or sport.
Spiritual practices can vary based on our faith tradition and may include praying; meditating; centering prayer; reading our religious text; walking a labyrinth; journaling; practicing gratitude; listening to a sermon or faith-based podcast; praying over and contemplating scripture; engaging in creativity; practicing daily examen; or listening to spiritual music. Some practices may involve other individuals that can be done safely, including seeking spiritual direction, participating in a Bible or faith-based book study with others or engaging in worship (even virtually!). These practices can offer a sense of groundedness and a reminder that God is with us, including through this season.
As we continue to navigate this season of uncertainty, it is critical that we intentionally weave in spiritual practices that offer rhythms, routines and a grounded faith that can support us well through the waves of difficulty. Especially on campus, I would encourage Baylor community members to follow along with Spiritual Life’s resources and events, or check out Better Together BU, a partnership supported by both Spiritual Life and Multicultural Affairs.
Q: How can individuals within the campus community tend to their mental health to close out the semester?
Tending to our mental health in this last stretch of the semester will be so important as we move into the stress of finals, the complex emotions tied to the holidays, grief with upcoming celebrations looking different this year (including how we celebrate holidays, who we celebrate with and the reality of many having lost loved ones to COVID-19) and the reality of seasonal affective disorder on the horizon. In fact, in a typical year, about 5% of U.S. adults have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), with another 10-20% having mild forms of it.
In light of all of the added transition, uncertainty, complexity of caregiving and homeschooling while working/studying at home, layers of loneliness and grief, I do hope our Baylor students, staff and faculty will actively prioritize taking good care of their mental health and supporting others’ mental health care, too. One way I highlight this with my social work students is by recommending creating a self-care plan that pays attention to our physical health, mental health, social support and spiritual health. If we can identify some strategies to holistically care for ourselves well and be mindful of potential barriers to navigate, we may have more resilience and practices to draw from to cope with challenges and stressors that arise.
Finally, although NAMI highlights that 1 in 5 of us are currently facing a mental health struggle, some studies have shown that over 80% of us will meet criteria for a mental illness by young adulthood or middle-age. Therefore, I highly recommend that anyone who is noticing any changes in their mood, diet, sleep habits, behaviors or overall well-being immediately reach out for help. Students are encouraged to reach out to Baylor’s Counseling Center, CARE team or the BARC. Faculty and staff also have resources available through Baylor’s employee assistance program. Other resources for finding a mental health provider include HelpPRO, Psychology Today, Low Cost Help or these additional resources. For those who are deeply struggling, please reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text ‘HOME’ to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line. As part of my faith and my social work values, I believe that each of us are worth caring for ourselves, including caring for our mental health alongside our spiritual and physical health.
Q: What successes or bright spots have you seen within your campus experience that offer encouragement to how the Baylor Family has handled the crisis throughout the semester?
I am regularly amazed by the Baylor students, faculty and staff, the ways we have navigated the crisis together this semester, and I am especially grateful for President Livingstone’s and Provost Brickhouse’s leadership since March. This semester, some bright spots have included Dr. Deborah Birx’s reflections on Baylor’s efforts to keep everyone safe from COVID-19, the Fall Faculty meeting and Dr. Peter Hotez’s appreciation of how Baylor leaders have kept the Baylor and Waco community safe and following along when Baylor students take over Baylor’s Instagram account (like Brandon Nottingham’s takeover on World Mental Health Day!). As the Garland School of Social Work’s associate dean for research and faculty development, I have also loved learning about the ways so many Baylor faculty are offering their unique research expertise and wisdom to serve others through this difficult time, such as Dr. Emily Smith’s “Friendly Neighbor Epidemiologist” Facebook page to explain COVID-19 information.
I’ve also been reminded of what a gift it is to be a part of the Garland School of Social Work (GSSW) and this community of faculty, staff and students. The resilience, creativity, love for serving others, dedication to the social work profession and care for our students is so apparent within the GSSW. I have especially seen how my faculty and staff colleagues have adapted courses and assignments, creatively considered students’ needs and juggled their research responsibilities while extending grace to themselves and one another as we navigate this season together as a school to the best of our ability. Similarly, seeing our students’ resilience, flexibility, support of one another, commitment to the profession and heart for the clients and communities they serve is truly inspiring. Finally, Dean Jon Singletary’s servant-leader heart for the GSSW and the ways he has supported our school through so much transition over the last five years has been a gift. One example of this includes the two hours of weekly well-being time he extends for all GSSW staff and faculty to use in support of our spiritual and mental health care.
Q: What gives you hope for the spring semester and beyond as students continue through their academic endeavors?
Truthfully, our students’ presence and their enthusiasm over the fields of study they are dedicating their lives to gives me hope. As a professor, there is nothing like watching a student become fully alive in the work they are passionate about and feel as though they were made to do. Our students’ willingness to fully participate in the transformational education that Baylor offers, especially in this difficult season of COVID-19, is an honor to witness as a professor and certainly gives me hope. Further, seeing the ways our students are empathically caring for their neighbor by following Baylor’s safety guidelines, growing in their faith, checking in on one another, understanding faculty and staff are doing their very best and continuing to demonstrate their determination to learn and grow is an inspiration.
My hope and prayer for our students as well as our staff and faculty colleagues as we move through the remainder of the fall semester and into the spring is that they rest as they need to and prioritize taking good care of their mental and spiritual health. I also pray that we recognize as a community that by caring for our spiritual and mental health, by taking this season one day at a time, by trusting we are doing our best and by reaching out for help when needed, we give others permission to do the same.
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 19,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.
ABOUT THE DIANA R. GARLAND SCHOOL OF SOCIAL WORK AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work is home to one of the leading graduate social work programs in the nation with a research agenda focused on the integration of faith and practice. Upholding its mission of preparing social workers in a Christian context for worldwide service and leadership, the School offers a baccalaureate degree (B.S.W.); a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) degree available on the Waco or Houston campuses or online; three joint-degree options, M.S.W./M.B.A., M.S.W./M.Div. and M.S.W./M.T.S., through a partnership with Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business and George W. Truett Theological Seminary; and an online Ph.D. program.