College presidents’ perspective on student mental health and wellness

Participants in a virtual roundtable discussion addressed how they are seeing the impact of COVID-19 on mental health as well as actions they’ve taken to support students.  

Symptoms of anxiety or depression and thoughts of suicide have become so prevalent, higher ed leaders are considering mental health issues as part of the typical college student profile. What was already a big problem pre-pandemic has exploded, and it’s going to take a lot more than increasing counseling services to address it.

That was where the discussion began in a recent roundtable hosted by Boise State University President Marlene Tromp, who gathered virtually with other higher ed leaders to address student mental health and wellness in the context of COVID. Here are some highlights showing what actions they’re taking and how students are coping.

Marlene Tromp, Boise State University
Marlene Tromp, Boise State University

Wraparound supports

At the University of Minnesota, as at so many other institutions, offering more—and more convenient—counseling services became a priority, said President Joan Gabel. “In addition to counseling, which we’ve ramped up a lot and have changed—surprise, 18- to 22-year-olds don’t work on bankers’ hours—we have really looked at the wraparound support for students. What are we doing in the classroom so it’s robust but not aggravating the problem? What are we providing in wellness? Are we providing research to the overall cause? Are we giving faculty and staff resources so they can be allies and so they themselves stay healthy? We have made resources available to the scholarly side of the house to engage in early detection and offer appropriate treatment.”

Gabel does see one silver lining to the fact that so many students are struggling—a destigmatization in needing to seek help. This occurs naturally and is part of the message the university is sending in communicating about supports.

Other efforts have included offering students more emergency funds, increasing hours at the campus food pantry and giving support animals a campus presence. “We have a program where a lot of us pet sweet dogs,” she said.

One big source of student stress is the lack of internships right now. Tromp noted that “work opportunities can be class opportunities” and that at Boise State, “we had to reconstruct those opportunities so we didn’t disadvantage the seniors graduating and the freshmen coming in.” Her team saw those two groups as particularly important to focus on because both are in transition.

Boise State leaders also added mental and physical health to the strategic planning process and launched a campus wellness committee, which reaches across the entire university. “It’s a full range of folks that are engaged in this dialogue and they’re problem-solving in real-time,” she said. “We’re beginning to think differently about how we should operate in all departments.” For example, how should student affairs be thinking about mental health and wellbeing? Faculty address these areas on their course syllabi and help students access available resources. Besides ensuring that faculty are aware of such resources, officials have helped by giving professors language for approaching students who may be struggling.

Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College in Texas, said his faculty are trained in mental health first aid to help in identifying “what might appear to be on the surface an academic issue of disinterest.” Early alert systems now have a mental health component to them.

He also expressed the need to include broader community resources as options for seeking help. “None of our institutions are capable of being or should be social service agencies, but the pandemic is going to require us to have systemic relationships with all of the services within our communities,” he said.[click_to_tweet tweet=”“None of our institutions are capable of being social service agencies, but the pandemic requires us to have systemic relationships with the services within our communities.” —Russell Lowery-Hart, president of @AmarilloCollege” quote=”“None of our institutions are capable of being social service agencies, but the pandemic requires us to have systemic relationships with the services within our communities.” —Russell Lowery-Hart, president of @AmarilloCollege”]

Pre-pandemic, more than half of his students were housing insecure, he noted as an example of the challenges they face. Students are seeking help in getting their cars fixed, finding and paying for child care, paying rent, paying utilities and more. “We’ve leveraged the CARES Act funds, but the need for emergency aid is so far beyond what the CARES Act has provided. Every one of our employees has been trained in the language and mindset of understanding poverty and the pandemic has required us to act on that.”

The aim is to connect stressed students with resources that exist in the community and pull together outside agencies. “We’re having to glue those agencies together to ensure that every barrier our students face can be met so they can stay in school,” he said.

That need speaks to the holistic approach institutions are taking to addressing mental health struggles.

“We have learned it’s really about so much more than counseling,” said Maurie McInnis, president of the State University of New York, Stony Brook. “It’s about how do we approach supporting students in learning many of the life skills they will need to be able to access in order to care about their wellbeing throughout their lives.”

Her institution has taken a public health approach to mental health. “We spend a lot of energy on prevention, early intervention, and lastly on counseling. There will never be enough counseling,” she said. “We of course need to be able to treat their very real depression and anxiety. But some of what shows up is that they need to learn ways to support themselves and one another in their time of need. We [aim to support] students long before they get to crisis.”

Wellness through campus life

Many higher ed institutions opened up campus residence life this fall but kept in-person classes to a minimum. Did being able to live on campus have a positive impact on mental health and wellness?

“As much as we’d like to think students come to college so they can major in [a particular academic area], students come to college so they can have a roommate, learn to live independently, join a Greek organization,” said Donde Plowman, chancellor of The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. At UT, all freshmen must live in a dorm, and this is the only time that requirement has ever been lifted.

Those who chose to live on campus got support from building RAs and other peers. “As humans, we all need connection with each other. The dorms played a huge role in that,” Plowman said.

At SUNY Stony Brook, where about one-quarter of classes met in person this semester, many students also chose to reside on campus. Various reasons went into their decision, including that staying home may have meant not having access to WiFI or a space devoted to studies, McInnis said. Students sought “that ability, even though altered, to still be able to have that peer support and build those networks, having someone to stay up late with them in the library,” she added. “Being in person was very important to them, even if they had no in-person classes. It was in many ways why they were so enthusiastic in embracing the public health measures and ultimately why we had so few cases of COVID on campus. Students owned their behaviors and made it possible to remain.”

Related: Student compliance: Use the carrot or the stick?

Aside from the indirect wellness impact of natural connections built while living on campus, support services remain close. “We can serve students better when there’s proximity,” said Gabel. University of Minnesota officials heard from students that being on campus allowed professional and research opportunities as well as a chance to engage as part of the broader community. While some of those experiences are available online, students prefer them in person.

Large-scale surveys at Boise State also indicated that preference, said Tromp. “Even though students are satisfied, they are feeling isolated and alone and they are striving for human connection.” One student in her course “Leading and Learning During COVID,” which allowed students to interact with a number of campus leaders to better understand the complexity of running a university at this time, expressed it this way: “I would have given up every face-to-face class to go to one football game.”[click_to_tweet tweet=”“I would have given up every face-to-face class in order to go to one football game.” —Student in the course Leading and Learning During COVID, taught by President @MarleneTromp (shared in a #highered roundtable on mental health)” quote=”“I would have given up every face-to-face class to go to one football game.” —Student in the course Leading and Learning During COVID, taught by President @MarleneTromp (shared in a #highered roundtable on mental health)”]

Student resiliency

McInnis and other panelists expressed that in spite of all the changes to campus life, so many students have demonstrated grit. “Hope and resiliency are what we saw among our college students this year—in how they adapted, how much they wanted to be on campus, how they owned a message with each other: ‘If we all do this, we can stay on campus this semester,’” she said.

As Gabel pointed out, many of today’s college students were born in the shadow of 9/11 and entered school as the economic bubble burst, so they’ve had to cope with a lot. “What I see in them is a lot of grit and resilience.”

Plowman at UT agreed. “I was so inspired this year by those freshmen,” she said. “I went to the residence halls as they were moving in. I taught a freshman course. I was inspired by their courage. Coming to school, you don’t know anyone, you’re going to wear a mask, you’re going to sit far apart from people.”

From her vantage point, students rose to the occasion. “They wore the masks, they stayed apart from one another, they adjusted their expectations about college. Most of our students were just so grateful to be here, especially the freshmen,” she said, adding that UT’s efforts to help included assigning each new student an academic success coach. “This generation gives me hope for the future.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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