10 ways to prioritize student mental health

4 out of 5 students have experienced stress, anxiety, sadness, isolation and other emotional distress during COVID
By: | August 26, 2020
35% of students in a recent study had used telehealth for mental health support in the spring and a majority were satisfied with the experience.(GettyImages/Carol Yepes)35% of students in a recent study had used telehealth for mental health support in the spring and a majority were satisfied with the experience.(GettyImages/Carol Yepes)

College students say they will need campus mental health support as they grapple with the COVID pandemic and growing awareness around systemic racism, according to surveys by an advocacy group.

As most campus leaders know, anxiety, depression and other mental health problems were rising among college students even before the pandemic and the police shooting of George Floyd.

Four out of five college students have experienced stress, anxiety, sadness, isolation and other emotional distress during COVID, with 20% reporting that their mental health has significantly worsened, according to Active Minds, a student advocacy organization.

Pre-COVID, approximately one in three students—or 7 million—met criteria for a clinically significant mental health problem in 2019, Active Minds says.


More from UB: 4 actions for tackling campus anxiety and depression


Almost half the college students surveyed by Active Minds have also struggled financially during the pandemic.

Students also told the organization that they hope mental health care will be a campus priority to help them “recover from current national turmoil,” Active Minds says.

The organization offers short and long-term recommendations for improving campus mental health care:

  1. Maintain and promote telehealth services widely: 35% of students in a recent study had used telehealth in the spring and a majority were satisfied with the experience.
  2. Include student leaders on campus COVID-19 task forces. Research shows that student involvement in mental health policy decisions and program increases awareness and usage of campus health services.
  3. Maintain mental health budgets and staffing. Mental health problems increase the chances a student will leave school. Institutional investments in counseling is therefore likely to generate both increased tuition revenues.
  4. Adapt and innovate mental health services. High-risk individuals and groups, particularly students with marginalized identities, may not seek services on their own. Administrators should increase outreach and provide mental health resources in diverse formats, such as embedded clinicians in residence halls, support groups, clinical support, peer support and self-care practices.
  5. Develop a clear, comprehensive communications plan. Active Minds’ survey found students had concerns around uncertainty about academic accommodations and the availability of mental health resources.
  6. Embed wellbeing into courses. In online learning, students depend on faculty members as mental health first responders and the key connection to the university. Faculty members can promote wellbeing by avoiding midnight or late-night deadlines, beginning class with an informal check-in or a mindful moment and assigning self-care as homework.
  7.  Support staff and faculty well-being. Leaders may want to consider realigning expectations for productivity and increasing flexibility. Adjusting timelines for tenure, reappointment, and the evaluation and promotion process may ease some stress and anxiety.
  8.  Conduct surveys and studies to inform decision-making. Campus leaders should use surveys and participate in national studies to assess the effectiveness of their mental health programs.
  9. Ensure equal access to health care. Students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and low-income students have been disproportionately impacted emotionally. When analyzing data, leaders should disaggregate by populations to ensure that all students are benefitting from mental health programs and services.
  10. Maintain opportunities for students to connect socially. Students want to engage with peers virtually through student organizations, social networking and other shared experiences.

Active Minds’ website provides more mental health guidance for campus leaders.


UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.