Ryan Daily started his role as CALS Life Management Counselor in February 2020 and had three weeks — 15 working days — to settle into his new job before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and most of the UArizona community began learning and working from home.
“I was wondering, ‘What the heck have I done here?’” Daily said. “It didn’t seem like the best time to do this. But it’s actually turned out to be quite the opposite. Because in the mental health world then and now, especially working with students, the need is extremely high. It’s been a life-changing year for me as a counselor and I’m glad I could play a role in helping people get through this incredible time.”
Daily, who worked at Pima Community College before joining CALS, spoke about his work as a wellness counselor throughout the pandemic and the critical need for good mental health practices among students, faculty, and staff.
Q. How can CALS students, faculty, and staff connect with you and why is it important?
A. The first thing I’d want people to know is that there is no challenge or issue that is too small to reach out with. Some people are comfortable seeking help but for most people there’s this fear that if they get vulnerable something bad is going to happen, and the opposite actually happens. You’re going to get support and you’re going to feel better and realize you’re not alone.
To schedule a mental health wellness consultation with Ryan, students can click here to find a time on the online eSMS calendar and CALS employees can email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. What was it like to start in this role in February 2020 and then shift quickly to remote work as a mental health counselor?
A. Basically we went from March through May, two and a half months of, ‘What are we going to do, how do we shift gears to best support our students?’ So, first, I had to learn how to provide telehealth counseling, and I had not done that before. We had to figure out a lot of things those first months, and then my clinical supervisor, Dr. Amy Athey (Associate Vice Provost & Chief Wellness Officer of UA’s Health & Wellness Initiatives) said when the fall (2020) comes we should expect a surge in student mental health concerns, so we need to get ready. As such, we pivoted to providing psychological first aid, in additional to our regular counseling and consultative services, including offering the Wildcats RISE program. We are keeping people alive, literally, and responding to as many students as we can to support them in coping with the psychological injuries from the pandemic.
Q. Your appointment calendar has been full since the start of the pandemic, would you say there is a mental health crisis?
A. I see students who are really struggling all the time, so does that mean I can extrapolate that and say that’s what the whole population is experiencing? No. But we are facing a mental health crisis during the pandemic according to CDC data. The age demographic of 18-34, which is most of our students, they’re getting hit hard psychologically. Stress levels are up for everybody but it’s hitting this younger population the most. That may seem counterintuitive, because the media often portrays college students as being out and having a great time, and people think they’re at low risk for COVID so it must be great for them. But the data shows the reverse. Adults aged 11-34 are reporting far more psychological challenges as compared to most older adults. And with being a student during the pandemic, some work well independently but for others that’s the last thing they would want. For most students, to focus and get the needed motivation and support, they need to be in an in-person classroom environment.
Q. What are some of the most common issues you deal with?
A. For the students, the social isolation and loneliness is huge. Some people might say, ‘What about social media and being on their devices; it’s totally not the same thing. Those are just supplements and not the real thing. Anxiety and depression are also some of the most common mental health challenges that students are dealing with.
Q. What would be some of the key pieces of advice you offer to patients?
A. Students are really feeling disappointed in themselves and blaming themselves far too much. For example, if they’re getting C’s instead of their usual A’s and B’s, or failing a class, they are internalizing that and they’re saying it’s because of who I am, it’s my fault, when in reality we’re in the worst global disaster since World War II. My first recommendation is to say that in hindsight people will look back on this time and think, yes, they would have liked to have gotten better grades for that year or three semesters but in the grand scheme of life that stuff is really small compared to what’s important. So I would say just be kind, extend yourself a lot of compassion.
The other thing I’m hearing is that people are scared to share how they are doing with others. They don’t want to tell anybody else, because everybody must be as bad as me and I don’t want to be a burden and add to their stress, so I’m just going to keep it to myself. But what I say to those students is, if one of your friends or family members came to you and said they were feeling overwhelmed, I need support, would you turn them away? And every single time they say, no, I would talk them through it. So, we can experience tremendous healing when we are vulnerable with others and seek support, but when we live in denial and minimize our mental health struggles, that can be harmful.
Q. You’ve noted in presentations that a return to so-called normal once the pandemic eases won’t be a panacea for student stress. Can you talk more about that?
A. It is wonderful that the pandemic is getting better as more and more people are getting vaccinated, however, we’re going to have a new set of challenges to navigate. During the pandemic, life has been pretty dichotomous for many; you stay at home and you’re not really supposed to be doing a whole lot, things are really structured. But as the severity of the pandemic continues to decrease, we have to navigate a middle ground that may be tricky, like how comfortable are we doing different activities as more people are re-emerging? It is a balancing act where we are challenged with returning to our in-person lives while still trying to maintain safety until COVID risk levels are minimal for all in our communities. What do you do when people are urging you to do something that you’re not comfortable with? This has the potential to increase anxiety and interpersonal misunderstandings, so it is important for people to clearly communicate their comfort levels while also being respectful of others’ comfort levels.
Watch and Listen
Ryan Daily and Darin Knapp (Undergraduate Director, Family Studies and Human Development) were guests of CALS Dean Shane Burgess on Dial-the-Dean to speak about pandemic stress, mental health and more.