Mental and Spiritual Wellness for College Students Navigating a New Normal

by Anna Cayot ’20 and Evelyn Allen, M.S. ’19

As a college student, you’ve been adapting to a completely new situation while continuing your studies. Chances are, you could benefit from taking steps to protect your mental and spiritual wellbeing during this season.

Leah Fortson, PhD, MDiv, assistant professor in Azusa Pacific University’s Department of Clinical Psychology, specializes in the integration of psychology and faith. We sought her recommendations on how college students can maintain their mental health and spiritual wellness during a time of uncertainty and fresh challenges. Here is what she shared.

Know That What You Are Feeling Is Normal

In guiding her own students, Fortson said she focuses first on normalizing their experiences of the pandemic. Indeed, many students are coping with the realities of Coronavirus on top of the stressors that were already present in their lives before, she notes.

“We are all experiencing a reality that we have never experienced before,” she explains. “There’s no reference, and there’s no pre-existing framework to help make sense of our lives right now—it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling.”

Seek Out Your Anchors

When difficult feelings arise, having an outlet for them is helpful, and Fortson recommends that students identify and seek out people and practices that anchor them. “Anchors are so important when life is disorienting, because they allow us to feel grounded,” she said.

Your anchors in life may be your faith, family, an instrument you play, your athletic training, writing in your journal, or some other source of strength. Lean into those mainstays to reinforce your sense of normalcy and stay centered on what matters to you.

Continue Fostering Connections

In response to the physical separation that we are all experiencing, Fortson said virtual connections are more vital than ever.

“In this season, we’re learning just how meaningful virtual connections can be,” Fortson said. “I encourage students to not just text or direct message friends and family over social media platforms, but also video chat. Allow yourself to be seen and allow yourself to see others.”

Re-Establish Your Spiritual Practices

Additionally, big questions of faith can emerge during times of crisis, yet Fortson reassures students that spiritual wrestling is okay. “It’s normal and expected to ask questions and engage your faith,” she said.

There are, in fact, many ways to keep seeking and grow closer to God right now. Some key spiritual practices include reading scripture or faith-inspired books, praying, listening to worship music, or watching a live-streamed worship service—even better if you can watch with a friend, says Fortson.

At Azusa Pacific, the Office of Spiritual Life hosted a livestream every Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. called Weekly Rhythms. The recordings are also posted on YouTube. “Watching these videos is a great way to engage your faith and stay connected to the APU community,” said Fortson.

Recognize Signs to Tune into Your Mental Health

Coping with stress isn’t always simple, and there may be signs that it’s time to refocus on taking care of yourself and your mental health. Fortson says to pay attention to any thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that are out of the ordinary for you or causing you some level of distress.

If you experience mood swings, excessive or lack of sleep, excessive or lack of appetite, an inability to get out of bed, an inability to complete assignments, or are engaging in unhealthy behaviors and relationships, reach out as soon as possible to a mental health counselor. If you are an APU student experiencing thoughts of hopelessness or suicide, speak with a counselor right away by calling (626) 815-2109.

College students can watch out for these signs not only in themselves but also in their friends, Fortson says. “Sometimes it’s hard to see ourselves, and we may need the help of those around us to recognize when we aren’t doing well,” she explained.

Wellness Resources for APU Students

“It is extremely important for students to talk to any safe person and share with them how they are dealing with all that’s going on in their lives,” Fortson says. “And students should know just how much faculty, staff, and administrators are praying for them and desire to support them in any way we can.”

The University Counseling Center offers free teletherapy sessions for APU students. Call (626) 815-2109 to schedule an appointment.

The Office of Spiritual Life also provides pastoral counseling to students. Email the office at [email protected] to set up an appointment.

General Wellness Strategies from Dr. Fortson

  • Create a schedule for yourself so your days are productive.
  • Ensure you’re getting enough sleep.
  • Get dressed as you would if you were going to class or to work in person.
  • Do your best to eat balanced meals.
  • Take a walk and soak up some sun, if the restrictions in your area allow.
  • Try stretching at home or practicing yoga to get your body moving.
  • Be sure to consistently take any prescription medications.