No investments are more important than the ones you make in yourself and your mental health. Although we’re constantly hearing about the importance of physical health during the coronavirus pandemic, that doesn’t mean your mental wellbeing shouldn’t be attended to.

So, what steps can you take to prioritise your mental health and mitigate the stress caused by the pandemic? We reached out to Katherine Monson of Orygen, who shared tips and techniques students can use to safeguard their mental wellbeing during coronavirus.

Revisit your existing strategies

As an international student, you’re no stranger to stress – whether it comes from navigating your studies, overcoming homesickness, or balancing your budget. Though COVID-19 may feel like your biggest challenge yet, expert advice is existing coping mechanisms still work.

“Generally, people have skills that they use to get through other difficult times,” says Katherine. “We recommend using those skills. They’ll be different for different people; some people really like to do yoga, other people like to play Candy Crush. We really encourage people to use the skills that have assisted them in coping through other stressful times.”

So, think about what you normally do to calm yourself during exam season or when you’re missing home. Is it going for a run, taking a bubble bath, meditating? Whatever your existing technique is, apply it to the context of COVID-19 to reduce stress and improve your mental wellbeing.

Katherine also highlights the importance of remembering that no coping strategy is better than another – everyone is unique and must use the techniques that best suit them. “It’s important to do what works for you rather than feel any particular pressure to do something that other people are doing.”

Maintain a routine

Although it’s difficult to feel normal at a time like this, one way to reclaim a sense of normalcy is to establish and maintain a routine. Routines have powerful, positive effects on mental health, including better sleep cycles and regulated impulsiveness.

“Try to have a sleep and wake routine, a meal routine, and [a general routine of] looking after yourself by doing things like showering, cooking, and cleaning your place,” suggests Katherine.

Get some fresh air

Stepping into the great outdoors is a simple and effective method for boosting your mental health. Research shows that fresh air allows your body to breathe more oxygen, which boosts your serotonin levels, and ultimately improves mental and emotional wellbeing.

“When we’re spending most of our time indoors and learning online, it is really good to have a break from the screen and to spend some time outdoors,” says Katherine. “Getting some fresh air and being in nature is a really useful thing to do [to look after your mental health].”

Connect in ways that work for you

Social isolation may have you feeling exactly that: isolated. With that in mind, it’s important to stay in touch with your loved ones to help diminish such feelings. Katherine recommends taking this time to evaluate who you really want to stay connected to and finding communication methods that work best for you.

“Some international students most want to connect to their family at home because it can be a really worrying time depending on how COVID-19 is affecting your country of origin,” she says. “So, think about what the best ways are to stay connected with them. Depending on time differences, it may be best to use email or WhatsApp rather than a live chat [on Facetime or Skype].”

According to Katherine, it’s also important for your mental health that you set clear boundaries in your relationships: “Let people know what you do and don’t want from connection. Say ‘I’m just giving you a call for five minutes to say hi’ if you want to steer clear of the pandemic in conversation or say ‘I really want to hear how COVID-19 is affecting you where you are’ if you’d like to discuss those things. Be really clear about what is and isn’t okay for you in the connection.”

Seek help when needed

If you’re feeling especially overwhelmed by the pandemic, don’t hesitate to seek professional assistance. “It’s okay to just be okay and it’s okay to not be okay,” says Katherine. “And it’s okay to reach out for help.”

Consider speaking to a registered psychologist to gain professional insight on how you can cope with your feelings. If cost is a concern, remember that certain practitioners will negotiate their rates depending on your capacity to pay.

You may also be able to claim a portion of these costs under Overseas Student Health Coverage (OSHC). If you’re hoping to start counselling for the first time and you’d like to claim it under your plan, you’ll need to make a telehealth appointment with your GP first. Ask for a Mental Health Care Plan, which covers 10 sessions with a psychologist over a one-year period. Once you have your plan, your GP can refer you to a psychologist or you can find one yourself. While you can’t currently see a psychologist in person due to lockdown restrictions, many are offering virtual counselling as a remote alternative.

You can also consult ReachOut for a list of online mental health tools and apps to find the one that best suits your goals or check out any of the following sites for more information:

Study Melbourne Student Ambassador Rav Abeywickrama talks about her experience

I have been seeing a psychologist every few weeks for over two years now to help with my anxiety. Of course, when the coronavirus situation started escalating in March, I was feeling even more anxious than usual and feeling uncertain about the future. I felt hopeless, and felt like I had lost control of my environment. The anxiety was worse knowing that I couldn’t go back home to Sri Lanka to see my family (I’m supposed to be there right now!) to celebrate my wedding. My parents had organised a beautiful function and I was hoping to introduce my husband to my relatives back home. Not knowing when I would see them next, not knowing if I could finish my degree, not knowing if my job would still start this year was really worrying. In addition, I’m an asthma patient with compromised immunity, and I see a doctor every two weeks to get injections to help treat one of my conditions. Knowing that I could be hit worse, on the off chance I contracted coronavirus, was worrying me too.

I sought help from The Talk Shop counselling and psychological services clinic based in Melbourne CBD (now running consultations online). I already had a GP referral, which made the process a lot simpler. I reached out to the clinic and requested an online/telehealth consultation over the phone.

It really helped talking to someone about my emotions and how I was feeling with everything going on. Just verbalising how I was feeling felt like a relief. Understanding why you feel what you feel and reassuring yourself that it’s normal to feel these things is really important. It also made me differentiate between things that I could control versus not control. For example, I couldn’t control when the borders would open for me to go home, but I could control how careful I can be to protect myself (for example, washing hands often, staying at home, taking my medicines regularly).

It also made me realise that as migrants, we are already quite resilient ourselves and are no stranger to unexpected circumstances. I mean, if I used to live in Sri Lanka during a civil war, I could handle this too. Of course, I still feel a little apprehensive about the future, but I choose to focus on what is within my control instead and keep moving forward.

Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help if you need it. There are some great initiatives out there to help you – for example, Beyond Blue has a 24/7 hotline for wellbeing and mental health support, and even an online community forum to support us during the coronavirus pandemic. Lifeline is available for crisis support too. These are only a few of the resources freely available to the public. It takes courage to be vulnerable.

Reach out to your friends and family and keep in touch with them. This is the perfect time to reflect on your social connections and support each other emotionally. Since being at home, I’ve had wonderful connections, even video calls, with over 60 people at once, from five different countries! It’s amazing how technology can bring us closer together.

Finally, use this time to reflect on yourself and build awareness. Of course this would be easier for some of us who are less burdened by financial pressures. But I do think it’s a good opportunity to take some time off, make plans for the future, upskill, meditate, learn a new hobby – whatever it is we have been “too busy” to do. I do believe that after suffering there will be salvation – if you choose to have faith.