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Graduation in the Era of Coronavirus

Graduation in the Era of Coronavirus: Don’t ignore mental health

As the global pandemic caused by Coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to shut down the US economy, closed schools and introduced the concept of “social distancing” into our lives, let’s not forget the impact the crisis is having on the mental health of the most vulnerable among us

Tens of thousands of high school and college seniors are facing the prospect of missing out on traditional graduation ceremonies.

I’ve seen lots of creative virtual celebrations online by athletes and students who have had spring sports or activities canceled out of an abundance of caution related to COVID-19.

However, I’ve heard from family members and friends expressing the disappointment over the prospect of having a virtual graduation or in some cases possibly no graduation at all.

The crisis and mental health toll unleashed by COVID-19 hits close to home for me.

After graduating from Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State in 2019, my son Amani had his spring semester of graduate school at Ball State University in Indiana cut short.

My youngest son Aden is a senior at Coronado High School in Henderson, NV and had to postpone a campus visit to Seton Hall University where he was admitted with a scholarship. Visiting the campus in New Jersey is a factor in his college decision.

Although medically well intentioned, “social distancing” can lead to isolation for some coping with anxiety or mental health issues. That’s why I prefer “physical distancing” to encourage people to stay connected.

Normally this would be a time for families to plan celebrations and enjoy a major milestone in a students’ life.

For some, it’s also a time of stress about college admissions or graduation and transition into “the real world” for others. I know from experience. My son, Avery, graduated from UNLV in May 2017. Two months later, he had a major depressive episode and took his own life.

In 2018, our family started a nonprofit, The Avery Burton Foundation (ABF), which provides scholarships and performs outreach.

Then in 2019, I published my book, “This is Depression” to warn families about the dangers of depression. 

Earlier this year, I became certified in Mental Health First Aid for adults assisting young people. The tools I acquired have helped me become a more effective advocate when speaking at schools and performing outreach on behalf of ABF.

My decision to become a mental health advocate is rooted in honoring Avery’s memory and trying to prevent what happened to our family from happening to others.

At the risk of stating the obvious, we are living in stressful times filled with anxiety. To help families navigate the uncertainty, I put together a COVID-19 Game Plan to help manage stress levels during the crisis:

Embrace “Social Distancing”
I prefer the term “Physical Distancing” but it’s important to find ways to stay connected. I’ve read online about different ways students are sharing their experiences during this time. Whether it’s a Zoom video call or meeting up at your school once a week (driving in your own car) and just talking to get some face time is better than being isolated or suffering in silence.

Celebrate your achievements
Start a journal or blog about your experiences. Let your family and friends share in your journey to graduation, including the scholarships you received and the virtual tours that have replaced on campus visits. You can also Facebook Live your announcement of your college plans.

Resources, Resources, Resources
In real estate, it’s location, location, location. One of the keys to managing stress during these unprecedented times is to ask for help. Finding a good therapist is a good place to start a conversation about how you are feeling. As you research colleges, ask about mental health resources available on campus. I will also be listing resources on the ABF website. Please check back for updates.

No week days in your calendar – only strong days
One of my son Avery’s favorite expressions was, “I don’t have weekdays in my calendar – only strong days.” I believe it was his way of preparing himself to train his body and mind to be ready when adversity hit. No matter how uncertain things may seem, remember you have no control over a global pandemic. But you can control how you respond to the possibility of not having the graduation you planned.

The most important thing to remember in managing anxiety and protecting your mental health during these challenging times is to stay positive. Stay safe and healthy. We will get through this together.

Reggie Burton, owner of the Las Vegas public relations firm, RB Group, is author of “This is Depression,” a personal story available on Amazon and President of the Avery Burton Foundation

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