With most people worldwide feeling stressed by the pandemic, not least college staff and faculty, we still need to add one more thing to our plates: finding ways to provide more student mental health services this year and into the future.
Although most students feel stressed and anxious, most mental health issues are not diagnosed as mental illnesses requiring intensive therapy or counseling services. For the vast majority of students, more general, campus-wide social-emotional learning, community engagement, and peer-to-peer services may be the most important things to do to help students get back on track academically, socially, and mentally. Finding ways to emphasize mental wellness in general while also enhancing professional counseling on campus can ensure that schools are addressing the mental health crisis of our present and future students.
Rising Rates Before the Pandemic
The rates of mental health problems for students have been steadily rising long before the pandemic added to the burden. Campus leaders were already wringing their hands, but the issue has now been complicated by the broader psychological impacts of the pandemic on a higher percentage of students. Thankfully, the rates of serious mental health issues did not spike during the pandemic, meaning that the steady increase remained essentially constant. Nevertheless, providing enough support for students with the most severe mental health needs continues to be a challenge that every higher education institution must address going forward.
Campus populations are experiencing a widespread prevalence of less acute but certainly concerning mental health consequences for many—if not most—students. About 85% of students in one study reported moderate to high levels of distress. Because of the cultural conversation about the stresses brought on by the pandemic, it has become more acceptable to speak of feelings of anxiety, helplessness, uncertainty, and even depression. This increasing acceptance of mental health as part of overall health can be positive for campuses, especially as mental health and academic performance are inextricably linked. Students report fears of falling behind academically, having difficulty concentrating, and lacking the motivation to study.
Faculty’s Role in Promoting Mental Wellness
In some ways, faculty members are on the front lines of helping students with mental health concerns. Students must attend classes, meaning that instructors may be the first—and possibly only—staff members to notice when a student is showing signs of unwellness. Faculty members are generally willing to be “gatekeepers” for students’ mental health, but they need tools and resources. Providing training for faculty is ideal, but written resources may be enough to help faculty members know how to connect students to needed assistance.
While faculty can help students, faculty themselves are also impacted psychologically by the pandemic’s extra personal and professional burdens. They may have school-age children requiring remote schooling this coming year, lost loved ones to Covid, and been sick themselves. On top of it all, we ask them to navigate the risks of in-person learning while there is still community spread of a dangerous illness. Teachers may feel the responsibility to help counsel students, and they can do a lot, but they need to know when to hand off a more serious problem.
Mental Health and Admissions
Mental illness has long been stigmatized in society and the academy, and applicants who have tackled psychological struggles are discouraged from mentioning them. For example, Anna Gergen reported that six colleges turned her down before she was advised to avoid mentioning her struggles with depression in her application. Subsequently, she was accepted by Columbia University.
Admissions departments are the first step in a student’s journey in higher education, and changes in attitudes about and policies towards mental health need to begin there. Would colleges turn a student down for admission if they discussed struggling with a chronic disease like asthma, diabetes, or cystic fibrosis in their admissions essay? When such a large percentage of high school and college students report depression and anxiety, turning away prospective students with mental health concerns would dramatically shrink the applicant pool. So, what policies can universities put in place to evaluate applicants while not discriminating against those who are honest about their struggles with mental health?
Whole Campus Mental Health Initiatives
Many factors can improve mental health, and some are relatively easy to implement and incorporate into campus life. Social connection, a feeling of “belonging,” time spent in nature, and exercise come to mind immediately. Colleges can increase these positive psychological influences to help students who are experiencing emotional stress now. Consider amplifying the emphasis on peer-led student groups, boosting informal outdoor physical and social activities, improving connections between staff and students with special events, and other “ordinary” measures that can strengthen the emotional and social support that students need right now.
Mental health needs to be on the minds of all campus departments, from buildings and grounds to the president’s office. While students, faculty, and staff are all impacted by the stress of the pandemic, bringing people together to heal, providing extra support services, and destigmatizing mental health can change the climate on campus. But even beyond our recovery from pandemic stresses, we already needed to devote more attention to emotional health within campus communities. Any initiatives we implement now can be models for “normal” campus operations in the future, increasing positive mental health supports for future generations of students who, if pre-pandemic trends continue, will need them too.