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About 100 colleges and universities started the spring 2022 semester classes online. And we’re still not where we thought we’d be nearly two years after COVID-19 shut down schools for the first time back in March 2020. The highly contagious Omicron variant and thousands of students living and learning in close proximity resulted in many campus administrators feeling they had no choice but to continue COVID-19 health precautions. And even as COVID-19 case counts fall on many campuses, the long-term impact of the pandemic on student mental health cannot be underestimated.
The mental health toll of the pandemic on college students
As a society, it’s a cruel irony that many of the public health measures designed to keep us safe from disease are having detrimental consequences on our mental health. This is particularly true for students who find themselves inside a pinball machine that bounces them around between in-person and remote learning.
TimelyCare, the leading virtual health and well-being solution for students, partners with colleges and universities such as Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Virginia to improve student health and well-being. Through our partnerships and working with students each day, I’ve seen the impact of constantly not knowing what to expect. Instability and uncertainty lead to anxiety and stress, and we’ve experienced enough of these in the last two years to last a lifetime.
How higher education can respond to the impact of the pandemic on student mental health
In a recent survey, we found that college students, because of the pandemic, are more worried than ever about their mental and physical health. More than half said COVID-19 is causing them more stress and anxiety than it did a year ago. Nearly 70% blame the pandemic for the emotional distress they’re feeling. Almost nine in 10 believe college campuses are experiencing a full-blown mental health crisis.
And no wonder: Every time it starts to feel like the pandemic might abate and things will get better, another setback or variant emerges. As case totals rise and fall, students have a hamster-wheel feeling of, ‘When is this ever going to end?’ It makes them feel overwhelmed, depressed, and, in some cases, hopeless. As a result, demand for TimelyCare’s mental health services quadrupled this fall. And unfortunately, every day we help treat students experiencing suicidal ideation.
The best way to help students is together. Just as getting vaccinated and boosted will better position the U.S. to weather any future waves in the pandemic, we must all play a role in supporting students’ mental health now.
Prioritization of self-care for students
Connect with the people who support your well-being. Prioritize self-care such as seeing your friends, going for a walk, reading a book, listening to music, or doing whatever helps you unwind and find peace and joy. Take advantage of resources that your campus provides remotely, such as peer support offerings, 24/7 teletherapy resources, yoga, meditation sessions, or GroupMe chats. Most importantly, ask for help when you’re struggling. You are not alone.
Parents, friends, and family members need to be aware of mental health symptoms
Familiarize yourself with signs of anxiety, depression, and isolation. Pay attention and talk about how they are feeling both in the moment and in general. There is no one-and-done solution for improving someone’s mental health, so practice active listening, show empathy, and demonstrate patience to convey your love and support. Encourage a person in need of support to seek help at the first sign of struggle to prevent small issues from snowballing into big ones. Talking to others who have navigated this journey before can help too. You are not alone.
Higher education faculty and staff can prioritize student mental health
Now that we’re into the fifth semester disrupted by COVID, you’re also feeling the same exhausting emotional whiplash as students. When pivots are prudent, the more you can communicate the anticipated timelines and safety measures, the better that students can handle another change in campus operations. Continue investing in people, policies, and programs dedicated to student health and well-being. Seek funding from the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and even some state governments (like California) for additional mental health resources. Show grace inside and outside the classroom, and make accommodations for the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in. Keep elevating the conversation about mental health. You are not alone.
The mental health resources students need for resilience
There are students who worry legitimately about their physical safety as the pandemic continues. But what we hear more often is their fear of how it affects their college experience, their social life, and their long-term professional success—especially as it drags on year after year. While I believe that today’s college students will eventually develop remarkable resilience as a result of all they have endured, right now they are hurting and need urgent help. And they are most definitely not alone.
Do your students have all the mental health and self-care resources they need to stay healthy and engaged? At TimelyCare, our virtual health and well-being platform provides the on-demand emotional support, scheduled counseling, and self-care resources that students need. Contact us to start the conversation on how TimelyCare can support your campus.