Flipping the calendar from 2020 to 2021 brought hope for a better year, but the beginning of 2021 has been anything but easy on mental health. This year brings another term to add to the current mental health conversation — emotional exhaustion. Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association, defines emotional exhaustion as being “overwhelmed to the point where you feel like you don’t have the capacity to deal anymore. It’s physical tiredness. It’s mental tiredness. It’s difficulty concentrating. It’s all the things that we experience when we’re just at our capacity.” A recent study published by PLOS One found that the most common changes in how students felt compared to before the pandemic were increased lack of motivation, anxiety, stress and isolation.
For students who feel overwhelmed from uncertainty about their education, the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial stressors, and political unrest, it’s critical that higher ed supports students with the mental health and emotional support resources they need. Consider these eight ways to support students as they deal with emotional exhaustion.
1. Encourage healthy boundaries.
Watching an endless stream of news and spending hours in front of a screen can trigger stress and anxiety. While staying informed can be healthy, boundaries are important. Mental health campaigns within colleges and universities can share the importance of getting away from screens and spending time outside, connecting with friends and family in safe ways during the pandemic, and participating in hobbies. As the weather improves, the authors of a study on student mental health during the pandemic conducted by researchers at North Carolina State and Clemson universities recommended that schools explore opportunities to bring classes outside.
2. Create a culture that supports student well-being.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently published a report that called on U.S. colleges and universities to take comprehensive, campus-wide approaches to more effectively address mental health (as well as substance use problems) among students and develop a campus culture that supports well-being. This starts with school leaders making campus well-being a priority, acknowledging the importance of mental health, addressing the stigma of mental illness, and providing appropriate resources for students.
3. Be transparent about COVID-19 on campus.
As COVID-19 continues to impact the U.S., research shows that students who know what is going on with their campus’ cases, numbers and risk factors are less likely to experience high levels of stress. In your digital communication to students, share the impact of COVID-19 on your campus, along with the steps taken to keep students, faculty and staff safe and healthy.
4. Stay connected.
Feelings of isolation and loneliness have become commonplace during the pandemic. In fact, from April to September 2020, 70% of people who screened with moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety or depression reported that loneliness or isolation was one of the top three things contributing to their mental health concerns. Consistent lines of communication with students must remain to keep them connected to campus and community. This could include creating virtual spaces for students to connect, keeping students up-to-date with text and email messages, sharing positive messages from school social media, and having faculty regularly contact their students.
5. Provide appropriate training for faculty.
Higher ed faculty are on the frontlines of student mental health care. They are the ones most often in contact with students, and as such, they need training on how to create an inclusive and healthy learning environment. Faculty need to be aware of how they can positively and negatively impact student health. Basic training in identifying and speaking with students who may benefit from a referral to campus mental health resources is also key to keeping students healthy. Additionally, faculty should be well versed in what resources are available to support student health and wellness.
6. Promote self-care.
During these difficult times, self-care should be a top priority for students struggling with their mental health. Empower students to confront and manage stress with resources and knowledge that will make your campus community healthier and stronger. These seven self-care recommendations are a good place to start.
7. Ensure mental health resources are prepared.
During seasons of high stress, your campus mental health resources need to be ready and available. If demand for mental health services grows beyond what your campus resources can handle, services like telehealth and other virtual care support options can support existing services by filling the gap with on-demand and after-hours care.
8. Remind students how to access and utilize mental health resources.
In the same way that your mental health staff needs to be prepared during seasons of high stress, this is when students need to be reminded about the resources available to support their well-being. This could include a guide to accessing on-campus resources, details on virtual care options, and links to topical videos and educational resources on mental health, self-care and wellness.