Auburn mental health professionals emphasize importance of maintaining positive mental health management practices

Published: October 04, 2021
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Sunday, Oct. 10, is World Mental Health Day, a day to help raise awareness for mental health issues around the world and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. Maintaining one’s mental health during a global pandemic has never been more important, and that certainly rings true for members of the Auburn Family. Dustin Johnson, a licensed psychologist and assistant director for outreach at Auburn University’s Student Counseling & Psychological Services, or SPCS, and Joeleen Cooper-Bhatia, a licensed psychologist and associate director of SCPS, offer helpful tips for keeping mental health a priority, especially with the university at the mid-semester mark.

In recognition of World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, what are some things members of the Auburn Family should keep in mind when it comes to maintaining their mental health?

Johnson: We all could benefit from proactive management of our mental health. Although 1 in 3 to 1 in 4 people are living with a diagnosable mental health condition, everyone in the Auburn Family experiences a disruption to their mental health from time to time. As Benjamin Franklin wrote: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound in cure.” It is much easier to prevent a mental health disruption from overwhelming you than to recover from having been overwhelmed by one. Healthy diet, exercise, social engagement, deep breathing, working through unhelpful thinking, taking breaks for self-care activities and having meaningful conversations with people you trust can are just a few things one can do daily to maintain good mental health, as well as good total health.

Cooper-Bhatia: It’s also important to realize that it’s OK to ask for help if you need to. This could involve seeking out support from loved ones, connecting with community groups or other resources and seeking out professional services if needed, such as at Student Counseling & Psychological Services, or SCPS.

Auburn students are at the mid-semester mark right now, so stress levels could be high. What are some tips for them to balance their studies with relaxation time, time with friends and physical activity?

Johnson: The reality at mid-semester is that for nearly all students, stress levels are high, and acceptance of this temporary state can help mobilize people to develop a plan for balance. Healthy stress, or eustress, can lead to improved alertness, cognitive function and even academic performance. The key to ensuring that stress remains adaptive and helpful is managing one’s perception of stress. In other words, students need the perception of management over the stressful situation to prevent stress from overtaking them, regardless of whether they have actual control of the situation. To manage perception, students should develop realistic appraisals of how much time is needed to meet their academic demands; anxiety can often lead to an overestimation of how much time is needed to prepare. If students are more objectively determining the best use of their study time, it is much easier for them to develop time for self-care activities that are necessary for meeting needs for cognitive rest and attention to other important domains of functioning, such as social life, physical health and proper sleep and nutrition.

Cooper-Bhatia: The importance of self-care, especially at this time in the semester, cannot be stressed enough. When we feel stretched and overwhelmed by our demands, it can be easy to let things like sleep, proper nutrition, social time and relaxation fall by the wayside. In reality though, stressful times are when we need self-care the most. Giving yourself permission to take time to rest and rejuvenate is critical during busy times in the semester. I will often encourage people to set aside time for themselves, along with scheduling time for their other tasks. Planning breaks, fun activities and relaxation directly into your schedule, and making them a priority, can be extremely helpful.

This year, athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have brought the subject of mental health to the forefront. How do you think that has helped normalize the discussion about personal mental health, and do you think the past stigmas associated with mental health are being replaced with more productive and beneficial dialogue?

Johnson: Prominent athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka certainly have an elevated media platform that spreads messaging effectively. I appreciate their communication of the importance of prioritizing one’s mental health and the challenge in doing so among other obligations. Although most of us in the Auburn Family are not performing in front of millions of people watching them in-person or on television, all of us are performing every day. Disruptions to our mental health affect those performances, such as being able to fully pay attention in class, maintain alertness at work and be fully present during social conversation, among other things.

Think about how much we perform every day, and the mental and emotional strain that has on us. When constructive dialogue normalizes the prevalence of mental health disruptions and their impact on performances, it helps us relate to each other and breaks down the stigma of help-seeking. So, yes, the dialogue is productive and beneficial, and it will continue to be so, as long as conversations continue within households, on campus and at workplaces, as well as on the big media stages.

Cooper-Bhatia: One of my specialties at SCPS is providing group therapy. Through working with students in group, I have seen how useful it can be to understand that you are not alone and that everyone deals with mental health challenges from time to time. Seeing elite athletes speak out has brought more attention to the discussion of mental health and provides further evidence for those struggling that they are not alone. Additionally, these experiences help raise awareness about how essential it is to attend to one’s mental health.

What are some resources members of the Auburn Family can utilize to help maintain positive mental health?

Johnson: I work for Auburn University SCPS. Enrolled undergraduate and graduate students can visit our website or call SCPS at 334-844-5123 for more information. We offer individual and group counseling, psychiatry, workshops and outreach events all at no charge. We also maintain a 24/7 on-call phone service, and students can drop into either the Haley Center or Auburn University Medical Clinic locations during business hours and be seen immediately. I would also like to promote our creative approaches to stress management, including use of our therapy dogs, Drs. Moose and Nessie, our Zen Den and nap pod!

Cooper-Bhatia: At SCPS, we also have some excellent resources listed on our website, including several on-line workshops that any Auburn student can access at any time. I’d also like to highlight our group therapy program. We have a number of different groups that students can be involved in, ranging from topic-specific groups to more general groups. Group therapy can be especially helpful in obtaining support and feedback from other students who might be dealing with similar concerns.

Johnson: Health Promotion & Wellness Services offers peer-led wellness coaching, nutrition services, assistance for substance use and related concerns and Safe Harbor for survivors of sexual assault, interpersonal violence and stalking. These services are also for students, and this office works closely with SCPS. They can be reached at 334-844-1528 or through this website.

Auburn employees can contact the Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, which offers confidential assessment, counseling and referral services for regular employees and their eligible dependents. They can visit the website or call Auburn’s EAP at 1-800-925-5EAP (5327). There are also community resources for mental health care that can be accessed using the university insurance. The Auburn University Psychological Services Center, or AUPSC, serves both the campus and the community. The AUPSC currently offers therapy and assessment services, in person and via telehealth. For more information, AUPSC can be reached at 334-844-4889 or accessed on the web.

The Marriage and Family Therapy Center at the Glanton House offers individual and couples counseling, serving both the campus and community at a low cost. That office can be reached at 334-844-4478 or on the web. Lastly, A Sound Mind is a campus-wide initiative encompassing all programs, services and trainings promoting mental wellness. There are plenty of self-directed resources on that website.

More Information To arrange an interview with our experts, contact Vicky Santos, director of news and media services for the College of Liberal Arts, at santovr@auburn.edu.