Mental health concerns remain for college students, despite reopening hopes

A new study highlights the stress and uncertainty students are facing as they continue to cope with pandemic fallout.
By: | March 16, 2021

Even with positive pandemic developments appearing on the horizon – from large-scale vaccination efforts to colleges considering fully reopening for in-person learning – students are still expressing mental health struggles.

Telehealth provider Timely MD, which serves institutions across the country, noted in a survey done last week of more than 1,300 students that more than 80% are still feeling stress and anxiety, with 75% saying it has impacted their academic work. That statistic and others mirror those from a recent study done by the Healthy Minds Network that highlights the distress students have faced during what has now been a full year of COVID-19 concerns.

Although students remain hopeful about the future, the majority (56%) say in the TimelyMD study that they are concerned about “what life may look like once a new normal is established.”

“It’s telling that the survey suggests students are finding it overwhelmingly difficult to cope with an environment that remains in flux,” said Dr. Nirmal Patel, Senior Vice President of Care Transformation for TimelyMD. “This is an opportune time to lean in and support students as they once again learn to navigate what a new normal feels like in society and on campus. Colleges and universities that lean into heavily promoting their well-being efforts with a culture of caring will be best positioned to address the chasm we have in student mental health.”

Students in the survey largely said they have found ways to cope through the tumultuous and isolating period – by turning to Zoom/FaceTime video chats (63%), phone calls (52%), watching TV or movies (40%). About a third say they have connected in-person with others who are adhering to safety protocols.

They’ve also sought support. According to the study, more than 65% have reached out for emotional help, including 63% who have used teletherapy, which often provides a more convenient and less overwhelming experience for those who connect. Only 10% utilized mental health services prior to the pandemic but that has leapt to 60% since. With many students operating remotely, colleges have been able to deliver much-needed services to them through telehealth and through peer-to-peer networking services such as Togetherall.

Even when pandemic threats have waned, students in the survey said they hoped their institutions would provide continued support in other areas:

  • 51% would like to have options for remote classes continue even when colleges “return to normal”.
  • 39% want to have better and more access to food delivery apps on campus
  • 38% would like to continue to have virtual access to faculty members
  • 22% hope their colleges and universities still employ symptom tracker apps
  • 17% would like virtual fitness classes to continue even upon the reopening of fitness centers

Despite the glass-half-full approach that many college and university leaders have taken during the past month, a lot of uncertainty still remains for students, who will need support for the foreseeable future.

The Jed Foundation, which has partnered with 350 colleges and universities to improve student mental health, substance misuse and suicide, notes the importance of institutions to reach potential at-risk students early and provide them options for services. They say it is imperative that trainings happen for campus staff so they can continually meet the needs of students.

Colleges and universities might also consider expanding the number of trained counselors on campus as well as offering life skills courses to students. Getting staff and faculty on board with programs that the university provides – even having instructors address those options through their syllabus and simply being available to students – is also vital to overall student success.