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Just as college and university administrators’ frenetic pace of scenario planning is not taking a summer break this year, neither are students’ mental health concerns that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus, racial tension and a struggling economy.
Pervasive emotional, social, and financial stressors for students
Students’ minds may be free from academic demands, but the emotional, social, and financial threats — as well as a general fear and uncertainty resulting from these acute and chronic stressors — are pervasive. Many mourn the deaths of Black brothers and sisters and worry about their own safety. Many are distressed about lost jobs or internships and experiencing the ongoing impact of social isolation. Many are unsure about whether to re-enroll or take a gap year and desperate to make ends meet.
Why higher education needs to support student mental health now
One student who recently expressed concern to me about finding bread and household paper goods in her store had difficulty concentrating on academics when consumed with worry for basic needs. Whether your campus’ reopening this fall will be in-person, virtual or hybrid, most students will indeed return as changed people.
We must prepare for the mental health tidal wave that is surging in students this summer. In fact, copious data and resources make clear that we must double down on our support for students’ mental health now.
- A recent survey by TimelyCare found that an overwhelming majority (85%) of college students say they continue to experience increased stress and/or anxiety as a result of COVID-19, with women reporting higher rates of coronavirus-related stress than men (93% vs. 78%). Yet, despite the increase in stress and anxiety, only 21% of students surveyed reported seeking emotional support by talking in person or via telehealth to a licensed counselor or behavioral health professional.
- According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 10% more likely to experience serious psychological distress, yet only 30% of African American adults with mental illnesses get help each year, compared to the U.S. average of 43%.
- Since mid-March, the number of students served by TimelyCare, the leading telehealth company specializing in meeting students’ medical and mental health needs, has increased nearly 500%. Two-thirds of students, who have used the Campus Health program, have sought mental health care, and 15% have experienced suicidal ideation.
- The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors has highlighted the positive impact that mental health support can have on students, with 66% of students saying counseling services helped their academic performance.
What colleges and universities can prepare to care for student mental health
With these factors in mind, here are three things colleges and universities should do this summer to prepare for managing the long-term impact of COVID-19 on student mental health.
1. Expand access to mental health resources
According to the American Council on Education’s (ACE) April 2020 Pulse Point survey of college and university presidents, a little over a third of those surveyed plan to make more investments in student mental health due to COVID-19. Campus leaders best positioned to support students will employ a combination of:
- Augmenting traditional campus counseling center offerings through expanded telehealth services. This continues to be a critical need since states still have not uniformly waived licensure requirements for mental health providers.
- Tapping into the resources of The Jed Foundation (JED) and its JED Campus program, which guides schools through a collaborative process of comprehensive systems, program, and policy development with customized support to build upon existing student mental health, substance use, and suicide prevention efforts. This summer, JED has entered into an alliance with TimelyCare to educate colleges and universities about telemental health services at campuses across the country.
- Amplifying the free resources offered by organizations such as The Steve Fund and Active Minds to help students, faculty, and staff navigate this unprecedented time. Recent topics have included the impact of COVID-19 on students of color, the fraternity and sorority community, and LGBTQ+ youth. The Steve Fund’s “Young, Gifted, @ Risk and Resilient” uses evidence-based information to foster a positive learning environment and support the mental health of students of color.
2. Normalize and destigmatize getting help
Stress, anxiety, and depression seep into the crevices created by the angst of necessary change. Adaptation and flexibility are key as college students work to move forward. Whether resuming in-person classes or continuing remote learning, institutions of higher education can take steps to normalize stressors and feelings that students are experiencing by opening dialogue about mental health, while also creating awareness among students, faculty and staff about when it’s time to seek emotional support.
Colleges and universities are getting creative with virtual internship programs and other remote engagement opportunities, why not mental health? The more schools can provide opportunities for students to get support from peers, faculty, and administration, and online mental health providers that address adaptation to new academic environments, concerns regarding housing and food, and management of anxiety that comes with the stress, the more likely students will be to seek help when they need it. The “Seize the Awkward” campaign website has timely and timeless suggestions that simultaneously help students feel connected and reduce the stigma associated with mental health.
3. Communicate with students about their options
Students need clear, continual and compassionate communication encouraging them to and directing them how to seek mental health support if they need it. If you polled your students today, are you confident they would know if they are available 24/7 or only during business hours? Would they know that they are free to students? Active Minds found that more than half of students would not even know where to turn. It’s not enough to just have this information on your website or that you sent a campus-wide email about resources a couple of months ago.
Prior to the pandemic, the preliminary results of my higher education research already confirmed that anxiety and depression were two of the most common concerns on college campuses. Students are navigating uncharted territory this summer, and the combined impact of the coronavirus, racial distress, and economic uncertainty heightens the need for higher education to help students address these issues. Without the ongoing and regular interactions with other students and faculty that take place during the academic year, left untreated, students’ mental health concerns may spiral into far more serious conditions. Let’s show them the continuity of care they deserve and stand with them and their mental health when they need it most. The clock is ticking.
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