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Mental Health Struggles and Survival Strategies

Graduate Studies in the Time of Coronavirus, Part II

Edited by Didem Uca, with support from the members of the CSGSH

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered all aspects of society in North America and around the globe, including higher education. The Modern Language Association’s Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities recently invited graduate students to share reflections on how this situation has affected them both personally and professionally. We will be sharing these perspectives over the course of several weeks, beginning with last week’s post on the importance of fostering empathy and community at this crucial moment.

The second part of the series offers powerful testimonies from three graduate students as they cope with the mental health effects of the sudden and unexpected changes in their lives at work and at home. They share personal strategies they have developed to support their well being while managing multiple, competing demands on their time and attention. This post offers a mere snapshot of the impacts of this crisis on graduate student mental health. Many struggle in silence, not feeling comfortable to share their experiences due to stigmas associated with mental health issues. Many face a new or ongoing lack of access to resources to support the management of these issues, further exacerbating an already difficult situation. We therefore urge instructors, advisors, mentors, and supervisors of graduate students to be mindful of how the pandemic could be affecting graduate students’ mental health. Check in with your graduate students to see how they are doing––not just as scholars or teachers, but as people. It can make a world of difference.


Chrissie Andreou Maroulli

Ph.D. Candidate in English Literature and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Cyprus


March 16th. I am teaching an online drama lesson. I am holding my daughter, who is screaming bloody murder, while I try to explain to twelve-year-olds what “characterization” is. She lifts my shirt to breast-feed, verbally and physically demanding milk. I hang up in terror. An uncontrollable force takes over me. I put the baby down, grab the doorknob and start banging the bedroom door onto the wall uncontrollably. My partner, who is in the next room on an online lesson of his own, thankfully realizes something is wrong and rushes in. Meanwhile my entire body is seizing. Not knowing what to do, he slaps me to try to calm me down. It doesn’t help. Eventually the panic attack fades out and I feel empty. 

Since the lockdown was enforced in Cyprus, we have to look after our baby around the clock; daycare is closed and our parents are not allowed to visit. We work from home while a bored two-year-old is constantly in the room. Since she sees me all the time, weaning has gone out the window; she wants to breastfeed constantly, which has me in tears from aggravation and pain. Most of our private students lost their jobs, so they have “temporarily” dropped out. Our rent is now higher than our income. We also recently found out that my father has lung cancer and have not been able to see him yet. 

The demanding baby needs to be entertained constantly. Mum needs to find solutions. We start baking. I have never baked this much. She loves it! We cook, one, two, three times a day. We sit at the table and eat as a family. We draw, sculpt, sing and dance, read, sink our hands into tubs of rice and giggle. She is happier than she has ever been. She infects us with her laughter. Somehow I finish writing a chapter for publication. I pre-record my lessons and make online teaching work. I continue enthusiastically working on my Ph.D. I think I am thriving.

I have never seen this much of my partner. I like him even more now. I remember all of the reasons why I love him. I see the meaning of life. Our family.

I have absolutely no doubt that we will figure it out; God has His ways.

Eventually the panic attack fades out and I feel empty. And then I feel better; so much better.


Kinsey Potter

Master’s of Professional & Technical Communications in English student, Tennessee Technological University

Twitter: @kinsey_potter

Digital Portfolio: https://kinseypotter.wordpress.com/

When the novel coronavirus forced the world to begin cycles of handwashing and daily cleaning, those of us with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) revisited personal rituals that we had overcome weeks, months, or years ago. As a graduate student in my first semester and someone who was diagnosed with OCD at a very young age, I have had to teach myself how to function remotely while also reteaching myself how to fight previously overcome compulsions. OCD seems to be the role model of what to do in a pandemic, and within only three weeks I am feeling exposed while my buried compulsions return. 

I finished a seminar paper shortly before I convinced myself that I killed my 60-year-old neighbor by shaking his hand—he’s alive, yet I obsess that he isn’t. Since the media echoes OCD thoughts that to not clean is to kill, I have thrown my previously minimized cleaning routines into the trash as I clean the kitchen for the fifth time in one day. We with OCD typically spend every day treating our compulsions through developing routines proving that if we do not conduct certain rituals, then nothing bad will happen. Yet pandemics prove to us that something bad will happen, and our minds whisper I told you so. Since the pandemic began, and even before stay-at-home orders and remote learning were put in place, I began to listen to that voice. I have revisited compulsions that I overcame at ten years old, I will not leave the house, and I am beginning to have to disclose that I have OCD with those in my personal and academic lives who had been unaware. The internet is making fun of us with #OCD due to society’s newly enforced cleaning habits, and the news is giving us an excuse to listen to the voice of compulsions.

Despite these significant challenges, I continue channeling my OCD into academia. Three papers written, one article submitted to a journal, and multitudes of emails sent from a frenzied state at my three-times-dusted-already-today computer. Yet, I am struggling to end the semester both successfully ahead in my program of study and not negatively behind in my process of overcoming OCD rituals. Because of COVID-19, I will receive not only an M.A. in English in 1.5 years, but I will hopefully earn the words I overcame my disorder in full capacity again, as I began to do 13 years ago.


Peyton Sibert

Master’s of Professional Writing student, Kennesaw State University

Twitter: @PeytonLane96

Website: peytonspages.com

At the beginning of March, COVID-19 did not seem like a problem in Metro-Atlanta. My partner, however, who resides in South Florida and has had a plan for the zombie apocalypse for as long as I’ve known her, told me to stay safe. While I was working at my university’s writing center five days later, my campus announced that face-to-face classes would cease for two days. Nonetheless, I still did not grasp the gravity of the situation until that evening when I witnessed the type of mass hysteria that I thought only existed in movies at the local supermarket. Dented cans and discarded items were tossed onto the otherwise empty shelves. People tried to avoid human contact, despite their carts serving as bumper cars in the aisles. Suddenly, my partner’s worries did not seem outlandish. Shoving my shopping list into my pocket, I grabbed the last loaf of overpriced, organic bread and searched for cans that were not too dented. 

For another week, the coffee shop where I also work stayed open; I washed my hands incessantly. When a temporary closure was announced, I was grateful because my fear grew with each new report of cases. When my campus announced that the rest of the semester would be conducted online, I secluded myself in my apartment. As a graduate teaching assistant, I adapted to tutoring solely online and have begun to wonder what I will do as the instructor of record if this continues into the fall. Planning my units for my first semester of teaching is daunting enough without having to consider a global pandemic. 

I have been reworking my unit plan, planning my capstone, researching Ph.D. programs, and reintroducing myself to the importance of mental health. At a time where I could allow my anxiety to control everything, I am challenging myself to become mindful of my stress by practicing daily yoga and walking around a local cemetery. The cemetery offers a level of peace that I cannot find in my neighborhood. The silence overpowers my worries, so that I can embrace the beauty of nature and the seemingly perfect marble gravestones. Although I hope to soon engage with others face to face, I am appreciative of this time of solitude, when I can delve into my thoughts about teaching, as well as reflect upon what I can and cannot control in my academic future. I never would have imagined that COVID-19 would make my partner’s plan for the apocalypse feel like a reality––despite the lack of zombies.