The steep toll the COVID-19 pandemic is having on student mental health

With more than 80% still experiencing high levels of stress, colleges must offer multiple layers of assistance.
By: | December 16, 2021
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In the middle of a global public health crisis, college students are in crisis, too.

As plans continue to shift around COVID-19 and the now developing omicron variant, what remains constant and unnerving is the toll coronavirus and other strains have had on students’ mental health through the fall.

Barnes and Noble Education on Wednesday released results from a pulse survey that showed that 83% have been significantly stressed or anxious since the semester began. And although many institutions provide resources to assist them, roughly the same percentage said they simply don’t reach out for help.

“As we continue to understand the obstacles to providing effective mental health services, it is critical that colleges and universities shape the conversations happening on their campuses and cultivate an open and positive discourse around seeking mental health support,” said Mike Huseby, Barnes and Noble Education CEO and Chairman.

One of the channels opened up by many institutions to address the needs that have resonated with students has been telehealth. “From August to October, we’ve had nearly quadruple the number of mental health visits,” says Dr. Alan Dennington, Chief Medical Officer and co-founder at provider TimelyMD. “Just in the percentages of our visits, 65% to 70% are for mental health. The three primary reasons are anxiety, depression and stress.”

Multiple studies have shown students were in crisis before the pandemic, but the shifts of the pandemic, the isolation and the unknowns are still having an impact. In the Barnes and Noble Education survey, 38% of the 1,100 students said the top cause of non-academic stress was “the COVID pandemic and if it will end.” Getting good grades was a top concern on the learning side.

“For students, not knowing what to expect and having things change [has been stressful],” Dennington says. “When you have instability, that leads to anxiety and stress. With coronavirus, every time it starts to feel like things are getting a little bit better, there’s another one coming. Students start to get this feeling of, ‘When is this ever going to end? Is this going to be my whole experience for the four years I’m in school?’ It makes them feel overwhelmed.”

Are shifts in decisions good or bad?

The constant adjustments in protocols by colleges and universities—some a necessity borne out of rising case counts, others a product of trying to gain back that new normal where they can—may be affecting the mental health of students, faculty and staff.

“Changing the rules certainly leads to more instability and probably frustration,” Dennington says. “Instituting a policy and sticking with that, there will be more stability. Whatever your policies are, trying to create consistency with it, including enforcement, is probably beneficial to students’ mental health.”

Cornell University, one of a handful of institutions seeing omicron cases on its campus, decided this week to quickly shift exams online after a huge outbreak, not the ideal scenario during a stressful time for students. Princeton University similarly shifted its finals online too, giving students a very limited timeframe to process the move and prepare.

“Schools keep getting put into difficult predicaments, where they’re having to make a choice: we need to protect the students’ physical health, but when do that, we put students in an isolated place where we’re affecting their mental health,” Dennington says. “With omicron and the Cornell story, there comes a point where they don’t really have a choice, where the physical aspects of the illness and the prevalence of it on their campus are such that they have to go remote. When they do that, they need to be cognizant of the impact that can have on the mental health of their students. The more they can do to communicate what the anticipated timelines and safety measures are, it is helpful. Finals and midterms are anxiety-provoking. Uncertainty is going to compound that.”

Any disconnect between campus life and the academic experience can be jarring, highlighted by data from the Barnes and Noble survey that showed 75% of students were happy to be back on campus, engaging in both face-to-face learning and taking part in activities. Delta and now omicron continue to upset that balance.

“There is definitely a percentage of students that would say they have a fear for their physical safety,” Dennington says. “But what we hear a lot more from students is the fear of instability, how it impacts their college experience, their social life, and their long-term success professionally, especially when it’s year after year. There are students that were probably sophomores when this started that are now seniors. This had has a significant impact on their school careers.”

So what can colleges do to help keep intact those communities that students desire? In addition to all the services they currently offer, Dennington says institutions should focus on the overall well-being of students, including proactively promoting resources that help them cope, such as yoga, meditation and group support. The emergence of telehealth as a 24/7, 365-day option also can provide welcome relief for students operating on and off-campus.

“It’s an extension of their resources, providing remote care, both medical, mental health and supporting their students when they are away,” Dennington says. “There is funding available to support those kinds of investments through HEERF and Cares Act funding. Some state governments, like California, provide funding for mental health resources.”