Maintaining Student Mental Health During COVID-19

By: Chris Butsch

Even before the pandemic, more than two-thirds of American college students reported symptoms of mental illness, such as pervasive loneliness and stress (American College Health Association).

Shockingly, being separated from your friends and fiddling with Zoom all day isn’t helping.

Since we’re not sure when campus life will return to normal, let’s talk about how the quarantine might be affecting your mental health and cover simple, yet effective ways to stay sane and healthy.

What’s happening to my brain during quarantine?
Please indulge me in a crude analogy.

Your brain is like a car. It can perform a multitude of functions as long as you keep it filled with gas. If you drive crazy fast or do a lot of things at once, you need to refill more often.

Likewise, your brain can do all kinds of amazing things like study, socialize, and retain sanity as long as it can synthesize adequate dopamine and serotonin (there’s a little more to it, but again, indulge me for the sake of the analogy).

The following activities supply your brain with “gas”:

  • Sleep
  • Sunlight
  • Exercise
  • Healthy eating
  • Time with friends
  • Doing things you love, etc.

The following things tend to drain your gas faster:

  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Lack of sleep, exercise, and sunlight
  • Stress from schoolwork, finals
  • Family or financial stress
  • Watching the movie Cats

To stay mentally healthy, you want to supply your brain with more gas than you’re spending. Rising anxiety and depression levels might be a sign that you’re at a quarter-tank or lower.

MY brain is like a Fiat 500 – it’s slow and breaks down a lot

Now, in a quarantine situation, supplying your brain with gas becomes much harder. Think about all of the things in the top list that have been reduced or cut off since you left campus. Plus, consider the things in the bottom list that have gotten worse.

As someone who’s battled both General Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, I knew I had to work quickly to help both me and my at-risk friends fill our tanks to stay mentally healthy during COVID-19. Here are some science-backed methods I’ve personally found to be the most effective:

What can I do to stay mentally healthy during quarantine?
Even within the bounds of stay-at-home orders and online coursework, there’s a lot you can do to stay connected to friends and feel mentally healthy

  1. Write letters of gratitude to your friends. Gratitude and journaling are both 93 Octane mental health boosters, and writing “thank you for being you” cards to your quarantined friends is just a huge win for both the writer and recipient. A box of 50 is $10 on Amazon.
  2. Take loooooong walks. There’s a reason researchers call nature “vital for mental health.” A single 90-minute walk through nature reduces activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the source of negative, ruminating thoughts.
  3. Schedule a Zoom, House Party, or Netflix Party with your friends. As a mental health fuel, video conferencing with friends is a little… diluted. BUT it’s still fuel nonetheless. If you and your friends have irreversibly associated Zoom with schoolwork, consider downloading House Party, which is like Zoom with built-in games like pictionary and trivia, or Netflix Party, which lets you sync up a Netflix show with your friends and live chat.
  4. Volunteer.Volunteering might be the most pure happiness gasoline in the world. According to a study done at my alma mater Vanderbilt, “volunteer work did indeed enhance all six aspects of wellbeing (happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, sense of control over life, physical health, and depression). Naturally, there are a lot of communities in need during COVID-19, and non-profits are getting creative with safe, socially-distant ways to volunteer. For ideas, visit

I sincerely hope you found this piece helpful, and I wish you and your friends and family health and happiness during this crazy time. If you’d like to connect, or have a tip of your own you’d like to share, find me on Instagram: @chrisbutschspeaks.