The damage done to students’ mental health by the coronavirus outbreak and ensuing college closures has surprised even researchers at a student advocacy organization.
A large majority of the 2,086 students surveyed by Active Minds reported that COVID-19 has had a negative emotional impact, says Laura Horne, the organization’s chief program officer and author of its student mental health survey.
What was startling was that one in five students said their mental health had “significantly worsened” during the coronavirus pandemic, Horne says.
Students reported high levels of stress and anxiety, disappointment and sadness, and loneliness and isolation, according to the survey.
“Colleges and universities should not just be asking about students’ likelihood to return in the fall,” Horne says. “They should be including mental health, and using that data to set priorities.”
This information could convince administrators facing financial cuts to maintain or even increase funding for campus mental health services next school year.
The availability of comprehensive mental health services could also encourage students to return to campus in the fall, Horne says.
“It was a huge shift to go home and it will be a huge shift to go back,” Horne says. “If a college or university is cutting mental health services, a struggling student may wonder if they will be able to succeed. Mental health is so connected with retention and graduation.”
Another troubling finding was that half of the students said they wouldn’t know where to go to seek mental health care, she adds.
Because information about health care can get lost in the many emails schools are now having to send to students, Active Minds’ data should also lead campus administrators to better publicize mental health services—particularly online telehealth.
To get the word out, some college and university presidents are also detailing mental health services in weekly video messages to their campuses, Horne says.
“Through video, leaders can really relay understanding, empathy and all the things that are hard to communicate through email and text,” Horne says. “When students don’t hear these messages, they may just assume their university doesn’t understand and thinks this is a vacation for them.”
Mental health mobilization
Dustin Brentlinger, director of the wellness center at Denison University in Ohio, compares the ways some schools are now integrating health into campus life to efforts made around diversity and inclusion in recent years.
“Diversity committees use to do all the programming and work but then schools realized that diversity needed to be a part of everything they do,” Brentlinger says. “We’re starting to see institutions that realize that wellness needs to be incorporated into everything they do.”
For instance, college students are often counseled to get more sleep. Yet, educators on campus may need to better understand all the reasons students aren’t getting enough rest.
“We may not think about whether there’s a trash truck backing up outside their window at 2 in the morning or about the blue lights in hallways of residence halls,” Brentlinger says.
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“We have a large and diverse population of students, so we think more holistically about what medicine means to different people,” he says.
Since the campus closed, Denison’s counselors have seen a higher than expected number of students participating in wellness sessions. They’ve even seen an increase in the number of students participating in Productivity Circle sessions for students with ADHD and similar conditions.
“Now, we’re looking at the fall to try to understand how to provide services,” he says. “We will continue to provide access to teletherapy with our counselor and face-to-face with social distancing.”
UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.