Students in isolation ‘Better Together’with support group

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Gannon University Counseling Center

The “Better Together” support group is available for any Gannon student in isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19.

Madeline Bruce, Features Editor

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it many concerns that stem from the virus itself. Economic impact, policy change, operational changes. The list of challenges that stem from the pandemic could go on.
Perhaps one of the most emphasized concerns, and one that has even been called a pandemic itself at times, is the mental health ramifications of the pandemic.
The pandemic is detrimental to mental health for several reasons. Dealing with extreme change, the risk of getting the virus, isolation and overall uncertainty can cause already existing mental illnesses to worsen, and the onset of mental health issues in people who did not previously have them.
“I think that now, more than ever, everyone’s mental health is being impacted by COVID-19-related issues like isolation, loneliness, interrupted routines and more,” Katie Dickey, a junior social work major and work study at Gannon’s Counseling Center, said. “I can tell you from experience that these concerns can really escalate when one faces quarantine.”
Mental health can often be on the back burner for some students, as many facets of life take precedence. Students’ mental health is easily affected by the pandemic, especially while in isolation or quarantine. To assuage this, Gannon’s Counseling Center has implemented a COVID-19 isolation and quarantine virtual support group called “Better Together.”
The group meets via Zoom at 5 p.m. every Thursday. Or, that was the plan, Jodi Giacomelli, Ph.D., director of Gannon’s Counseling Center, said. So far, the group hasn’t seen any student participation. Still, that doesn’t mean a need didn’t exist prior to the group’s creation.
“Last semester, with students going in and out of isolation and quarantine, we had a number of them reach out on their own saying, ‘I’m in quarantine’ or ‘I’m in isolation, and this is really hard,’” Giacomelli said. “We also had people, like the nursing staff and the CARE team, who helped students get into isolation and quarantine, reach out to us from time to time and say, ‘I just helped a student get into quarantine, and they seem like they’re really struggling, would you reach out to them?’”
So, instead of taking a piecemeal approach to helping students in isolation and quarantine, Giacomelli said the staff at the Counseling Center came up with a consistent opportunity to offer to students to help them connect while in isolation or quarantine. However, the group has so far been in line with past trends of therapy and support groups.
“Throughout the years, it’s been very difficult to run groups out of our office, and I think a lot of smaller schools struggle with that,” Giacomelli said. “Bigger schools usually run tons of groups, because there’s anonymity there, and students often worry a lot about knowing someone in the group at a smaller school like Gannon.”
Because of the requests that were made for counseling last semester, the staff at the Counseling Center found an unmet need at Gannon for an isolation and quarantine support group. Now, five weeks into the semester, it’s seeming like there wasn’t that need. However, a lot of factors could play into this.
Students could be afraid to join an unknown group when they’re already in a situation they are not comfortable in or that is triggering mental health issues. So far this semester, the number of students in quarantine and isolation has been low, so that might have something to do with it, Giacomelli said.
Another big reason for the lack of engagement might be that students don’t know the group exists.
Students who live on campus and are put in quarantine or isolation receive more attention and resources than those who live off campus, Giacomelli said. Students who live on campus are provided resources by the CARE team, which most recently made cards for the group that is currently in quarantine.
“My guess is that at least with the off-campus students, they might not know about it. And not everybody follows our Instagram, which is basically how we advertised it,” Giacomelli said.
There also might be misconceptions about what the group really is.
“The group itself isn’t really intended to be a therapy group,” she said. “In fact, a student may only attend once or twice.”
“Better Together” is meant to be more of a temporary support group for students who are in isolation or quarantine, which could possibly serve as a gateway to ongoing counseling services, if the student so chooses.
Students can connect with each other while in a 10- or 14-day quarantine and can relate on a unique level that their close friends might not be going through with them.
“I think human connection is a really important thing,” Giacomelli said. “As college students and really as humans, we’re not used to the loneliness that comes with isolation and quarantine.
“Certainly college students aren’t. I think students are in a developmental age of needing and wanting to be connected, so taking a college student and saying ‘You have to stay in your room or your apartment by yourself for two weeks’ is so counter to where they are.”
Factor in mental health issues, and the isolation/quarantine period is made much more difficult. According to Giacomelli, for someone who doesn’t have a history of mental illness, has pretty good coping skills and a rather solid support system, the quarantine period will be difficult, but they will get through it.
For someone who struggles with mental illness, is simply vulnerable, doesn’t have good coping skills or doesn’t have a strong support system, a relapse could be triggered.
“Those are the students I worry about most,” Giacomelli said. “I hope we might be able to recognize that in the group and encourage them to consider that ongoing counseling.”
Though students have yet to participate, Dickey said the “Better Together” group is an important opportunity to alleviate the stress and loneliness of quarantine by connecting with other students for support.
“By getting and giving advice on how to manage your mental health experience during quarantine, you can be a part of a culture of students helping students at Gannon and contribute to a movement for mental wellness,” she said.

MADELINE BRUCE

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