The Charger Blog

Mental Health Experts: ‘Asking for Help is a Sign of Strength’

As part of the Bartels Lecture Series, the University’s most distinguished guest speaker series, Claude Ann Mellins, Ph.D., and Lourival Baptista, M.D., of Columbia University discussed the impact the coronavirus global pandemic has had on mental health and stressed the importance of self-care.

January 29, 2021

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Image of Drs. Claude Ann Mellins and Lourival Baptista.
Drs. Claude Ann Mellins and Lourival Baptista spoke to the University community as part of the Bartels Lecture Series.

Lourival Baptista, M.D., acknowledges that this past year has been challenging for everyone – particularly college students. He says the coronavirus global pandemic is not a “one size fits all” experience for students and that stress and fear affect people in myriad ways.

An associate professor of psychiatry and vice chair for clinical services in Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry, Dr. Baptista recently spoke to the University community as part the Bartels Lecture Series, the University of New Haven’s longest running and most distinguished guest speaker series.

Discussing the challenges that students are now facing, he acknowledged there have been many stressors in addition to the pandemic, such as polarizing political rhetoric, racial and social injustice, and climate change.

“A higher number of college students might need additional support right now,” said Dr. Baptista, a bilingual and board-certified psychiatrist. “They’re also less connected to peers and organizations because of the pandemic, and we might have less of an ability to identify students who are at a higher risk of needing help. There’s also still a stigma.”

Summer McGee, Ph.D., Claude Ann Mellins, Ph.D., and Lourival Baptista, M.D.
Summer McGee, Ph.D. (right), Claude Ann Mellins, Ph.D., and Lourival Baptista, M.D.
‘It’s important to set boundaries for ourselves’

The lecture, titled “Supporting Our Emotional and Psychological Well-Being During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was held via Zoom. The Bartels Lecture Series was established more than 30 years ago by University benefactors Henry Bartels ’91 Hon. and Nancy Bartels ’11 Hon. to enrich the educational experience of students by bringing prominent leaders in business and public service to the University.

As part of the discussion, Dr. Baptista and his colleague, Claude Ann Mellins, Ph.D., stressed the importance of caring for one’s mental health, especially during the pandemic. They are the co-founders of the CopeColumbia program that focuses on promoting well-being and resilience in all Columbia University employees.

Dr. Mellins urged students to practice self-care, encouraging them to “check their batteries,” since the pandemic and associated stressors can lead to feelings of burnout and being overwhelmed. She shared her own story of burnout when, early in the pandemic and at the height of the outbreak in New York last spring, she was working double duty to support healthcare workers. She was so worn down, she ended up in bed, fearing she had COVID-19. She did not, but she says it was a reminder for her to slow down and to take care of herself.

“It’s important to set boundaries for ourselves and to recognize changes to our schedules and activities – particularly in our virtual worlds,” said Dr. Mellins, a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University and a research scientist and co-director of the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies in the Division of Gender, Sexuality, and Health at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University. “Recognize that work might take longer and feel more emotionally draining. We need to remember the needs of others are not more important than our own at any given time.”

Drs. Claude Ann Mellins and Lourival Baptista.
Drs. Claude Ann Mellins and Lourival Baptista discussed the importance of asking for help.
‘We are resilient’

Dr. Mellins encouraged students to focus on what they can control. She says it is common, after a trauma or stressor, to focus on the past or worry about the future, but that there are coping skills that can help students manage that stress.

“An important tool is anchoring ourselves in the present,” she said. “We are resilient. That doesn’t mean that some of us won’t struggle and need more support, and that’s okay. Asking for help is a sign of strength.”

Dr. Baptista noted the many different stressors that stem from the pandemic, including the fear of getting sick, loss of loved ones, job insecurity, and social isolation. He stressed the importance of self-reflection and recognizing stress reactions and signs of distress – during and after the pandemic.

“Even after the physical threat of the disaster is controlled, we’ll see the psychological effect will linger and affect more people,” he said. “Post disasters, post pandemics, there’s an increase in rates in the community of depression, anxiety, substance use, and PTSD symptoms and disorders.”