A Psychologist Takes Up Social Distancing

March 20, 2020

Yan Li offers a blueprint for mental health support during isolation.

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Image: Amanda Solliday / Office of Global Affairs

-By Amanda Solliday

Just as students were leaving Duke Kunshan’s campus for Chinese New Year, that’s when Dr. Yan Li remembers hearing about the lockdown in Wuhan.

“It felt very, very sudden,” Li says.

Li is a psychologist and the associate dean of Student Affairs and director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Duke Kunshan University in China.

The presence of coronavirus in Wuhan prompted Duke Kunshan to close its campus and suspend in-person classes. Soon, its nearly 600 undergraduates and more than 100 faculty dispersed throughout China and to their respective home countries.

That first day Li heard the lockdown news, she decided to write an online newsletter – Getting through Coronavirus — One Breath at a Time. She predicted that many students would need help adjusting to the abrupt changes in their school and life.

“It’s a whirlwind,” Li says. “I knew we had to reach out to our students.”

A recent report published in The Lancet documents an increase in anxiety, depression and stress in China due to the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. But the report also points out that, in 2020, mental health professionals have more digital tools than ever to help people who are struggling.

A week after the coronavirus outbreak in China, Li flew back to the United States to reunite with her family in Durham. She began working remotely to assist Duke Kunshan students, staff and faculty online. She wanted the university’s counseling services to continue to be proactive about reaching people and addressing mental health concerns.

Even with the disruption, her group has written newsletters, hosted workshops, held group counseling sessions, recruited peer responders and vetted online screening tools and interactive self-help therapy, all in the matter of a few weeks.

Although CAPS at Duke Kunshan typically only works with students, they began free online counseling services for faculty and staff and also hired a part-time therapist to provide bilingual support.

“We felt it was important to support faculty and staff during this period,” Li says. “Because they’re now trying to work online with a 12-hour time difference and responding continuously to new situations as this virus spreads.”

Her team also sees new challenges arising with students as they take remote college courses and reconnect with family members.

“Students are not directly saying they are worried about safety because of the coronavirus, but it's more about adjusting to these really abrupt changes,” Li says. “There are common themes of disconnect, displacement, loneliness and isolation. That’s a product of the coronavirus.”

To help address these themes, mental health professionals, including Li, began to recruit and train students to become online peer responders for mental health. The program is called DKU Peer for You, and its goal is to create a way for students to connect and help each other feel less isolated and lonely, as well as reduce mental health stigma and encourage students to seek help when needed.

Because the coronavirus appeared earlier in China compared to the United States, Li notes that Duke Kunshan was forced to adapt its crisis response a few weeks ahead of the American campus. She previously worked at Counseling and Psychological Services at Duke and has been teaming up with colleagues in Durham to supplement existing mental health support with these online-based methods.

“This is a crisis, but also an opportunity for new collaborations and strengthened relationships,” Li says.

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