Tapping into student resiliency

Faced with unprecedented challenges, today’s students must proceed with creativity, grit and fortitude. Here’s how colleges can help. 
By: | June 11, 2020

Today’s generation of college students have faced more social, political and economic challenges than many adults experience in a lifetime. They’ve been raised in an era of partisan turmoil, threats of terrorism and increasingly common school violence. Now they’re negotiating a worldwide pandemic and the second severe recession of their lifetime.

Contrary to the “snowflake” label they often receive, today’s students are remarkably resilient. They are open to recognizing and talking about their fears and anxieties, and subsequently seeking support. They are also leading the charge in changing the conversation about mental health. In fact, 60 percent of college-age adults say that seeing a mental health professional is a sign of strength, according to a 2016 study from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

But even the most resilient student may feel overwhelmed by the barrage of today’s challenges. According to a 2017 Healthy Minds study, 74 percent of students reported that mental health concerns negatively impacted their academic performance in the four weeks prior to being surveyed. There’s every reason to believe this will be true today, in light of distance learning where students lack access to traditional support networks, creating an increased risk to attrition. To help, schools should be aware of (and respond to) the following emotional and well-being pain points that students will be managing through the summer and into the fall 2020 semester.

Nathaan Demers, clinical psychologist

Nathaan Demers, clinical psychologist

• Loneliness: Prior to the pandemic, 67 percent of students reported feeling very lonely within the last year, according to the 2019 ACHA National College Health Assessment. There’s no doubt that learning in place has increased this sense of loneliness. According to a 2014 University of Washington study, 41 percent of students said that feeling socially alone was a major factor in their decision to stop out.

To combat loneliness, administrators must find creative ways to increase students’ feelings of affiliation with the campus as a whole, including bolstering personal connections with faculty, staff and peers. Schools should be augmenting service offerings with digital tools that foster student connection, developing virtual supports traditionally provided on campus, increase personal outreach to students and provide tips on building meaningful virtual connections during online orientation programming.

• Financial stress: The pandemic and resulting economic downturn puts tremendous pressure on students. Clear, consistent communication regarding financial challenges is essential to help increase a sense of safety and control for students. Campus staff should increase their communication efforts with students regarding potential impacts on student loans, work-study positions and scholarships, among other things.

• Overall uncertainty: Students have been shaken by the events of the past months, particularly as the slow return to “normalcy” has stalled. Many campuses are weighing possibilities about the Fall 2020 semester, ranging from “campus as usual” to “total distance learning,” or something in between.

In times of uncertainty, creating a sense of predictability, safety and control are essential. Thus, campuses must deliver ongoing information (e.g., updates every Monday). Even if these updates don’t provide specific answers, the consistent communication will be reassuring to students and help them feel “in the know” rather than on the outskirts as victims to the unknown.

To increase feelings of safety, institutional leaders can clearly convey the actions they are putting into place (e.g., digital mental and physical health supports) to reassure students that safety is a top priority. In addition, providing students control in any way possible can be extremely beneficial. Even enabling small decisions, such as allowing students to determine how they would like to receive updates (email, call or text) can help.

COVID-19 presents countless challenges for students and universities alike, many stemming from the sheer uncertainty of what lies ahead. Leaning into student strengths (i.e., their willingness to seek support and convey their needs) while strategically implementing communications and a return to campus that maximizes predictability, safety and control will have an immense impact on supporting student success.

Nathaan Demers, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist working at the intersection of behavioral health and technology with passions of bolstering resilience and well-being, and providing early intervention and referral to treatment to help individuals thrive. Dr. Demers is also the vice president and director of clinical programs at Grit Digital Health, provider of the YOU at College well-being platform. He can be reached at nathaan@gritdigitalhealth.com.

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