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Nearly half the students surveyed by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse said they could have used more mental health and support services from their colleges in the past six months than they received. The pandemic changed life for college students who have faced a traumatic year filled with academic change and isolation. A return to “normal” or even a “new normal” feels impossible for many students who are simply living in “the new now.” After a year of isolation, separation from friends, emotional distress, and remote learning, students are in a challenging position as they pick up the pieces of their academic career. How can higher education leaders best support mental health care on college campuses as students prepare to reenter?
A Healthy Minds Study fall 2020 student survey found “the highest prevalence rates of both depression and anxiety of any semester of Healthy Minds data to date,” according to Sarah Ketchen Lipson, assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “The main story in terms of prevalence,” she says, “is actually not a dramatic spike in fall 2020, but rather the overall trend of rising rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems in college student populations over the last 10 years.”
In addition to rising rates of depression, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders among college students, a new Student Voice survey found only 15% of college students with poor mental health engaged in counseling services from their campus counseling centers last year. Sixty-three percent of those students grade their colleges’ responses to student mental health and wellness services at a C or lower. Student development professionals and mental health providers must begin with a clear understanding of these realities and challenges in planning mental health services for the upcoming academic year.
Realities for higher education about the college mental health crisis
Published by Kaplan in association with Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, the Student Voice survey captured the perceptions of 2,000 college students one year into life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are some key takeaways:
Students continue to have mental health challenges.
- 65% of college students rate their overall mental health as fair (40%) or poor (25%)
- 53% of college students report feeling anxious, worried, or scared about their life within the past six months often (35%) or constantly (18%)
- 75% of LGBTQIA students said their mental health is fair (38%) or poor (37%)
Students aren’t using on-campus counseling from their health centers.
- 3% of students used in-person counseling provided by their college counseling centers during the pandemic
Campus communication could improve.
- 41% of students noticed their college shifted from a “call if you need help” to a “we will teach you how to cope” approach during COVID-19
- 18% of those students said the new approach has been done well
Students with long-term mental health issues need more support.
- 47% of college students with mental health needs say they could have used additional support
- 63% of students who were prescribed medication or experienced counseling before college said they could have used additional mental health and wellness support
Scheduling counseling appointments is an obstacle.
- 15% of students who accessed counseling through their colleges during the pandemic said it was difficult to access services the first time
Peer support is popular, but not effective.
- 61% of college students said they relied most on friends for emotional support through COVID-19
- 47% of college students said they could have used more mental health and support services from their colleges
Challenges in providing care for college students
Some of the vulnerabilities in college students include a pre-existing or new-onset psychiatric disorder. Roughly half of the psychiatric disorders begin by age 14 — 75% by age 25. Many students have issues with the inability to manage stress and feelings of exhaustion. Others struggle with overwhelming feelings of anxiety, depression, homesickness, and loneliness. In short, college is a season in life during which mental illness and mental health issues are likely to manifest.
It’s also important to know that while faculty and staff generally expect 18-year-old young people to act like adults, their brain does not fully mature until age 24. The neurological pathways between the emotional, pleasure-seeking, and impulsive centers, and the cortical regions that consider alternative solutions, consequences of actions, and utilize logic and reasoning are still forming. In other words, young adults tend to be ruled by feeling, impulse, and pleasure, which complicates decision making and behavior.
Experiencing life as an adult while acclimating to the demands put on students during the college years can be an overwhelming experience for students. With a growing pressure to do it all and be successful, they often need mental health support. However, they often fail to take advantage of the services provided by the college for reasons such as:
- Mental health stigma
- Don’t think their problems are big enough
- Can’t reach counseling center after hours
- Long wait for a first counseling appointment
- Inconvenient appointment times
- Unaware of available resources or how to gain access
- Lack of privacy for a virtual session
- Cost of a counseling session
Student reactions about returning to campus
The number of students attending school in person has increased significantly this past year. Governors across the country are prodding, and in some cases, forcing schools back in session. And now that the CDC supports all people 12 and older bring eligible for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, it’s likely that many more colleges will open this coming academic year.
Higher education leaders are cautiously optimistic about the return to normal college life. A flood of announcements from schools outlining their plans has already begun as high school seniors and returning students make decisions about where they will be in the fall. Some students are waiting to decide until they know what to expect on campus, and others are worried about the economic uncertainty caused by COVID-19.
Of course, some students come from stable homes and have not been as significantly affected by COVID-19, while others experienced the loss of a friend or family member or faced housing, financial, and food insecurity challenges. For example, Hispanic and Black individuals are more likely to have been hospitalized or died from COVID-19, lost a job and income, had difficulty paying housing expenses, or experienced food insecurity compared to White people. For these traditionally underserved students, COVID-19 upset an already difficult balancing act, leaving many — at the very least — emotionally exhausted.
A recent study found the most common changes in how students feel now compared to before the pandemic were increased lack of motivation, anxiety, stress, and isolation. For those students who feel overwhelmed from the continued impact of COVID-19, racial stressors, and political unrest, higher education must support them with the mental health and emotional support resources they require.
What schools can do to plan ahead to support campus well-being
While it may seem that this is an insurmountable problem and there are economic, bureaucratic, and logistical obstacles unique to every college campus, higher education leaders can take a strategic approach to overcome barriers, help students understand what care is available, and provide quality resources that will make an impact.
Here are a few ideas:
1. Engage your students.
There’s one simple step to take to help eliminate uncertainty about what to do and how to support and empower students: talk to students. Academic performance and healthier campus communities happen when students are engaged in the collegiate mental health policy decisions and programs that affect them. If your school has an Active Minds chapter, these students are a great first engagement step.
2. Create strategies to assess needs and make data-informed decisions.
Campus leaders should establish and update their plans to assess the mental health of their students, faculty, and staff. They should also collect survey data on an ongoing and scheduled basis on their campus and through participation in national studies. They should then create a strategy for how that data will be used to inform the campus’s efforts to support the community’s mental health. Organizations like The Jed Foundation (JED) ensure that schools have comprehensive systems in place in order to prioritize student mental health and create positive systemic change in the campus community.
3. Equip faculty with the right resources to help college students.
Faculty members can integrate practices and expectations that promote academic success and well-being, such as helping students create a mental health plan, building opportunities for reflection and processing of COVID-19 and current events, and normalizing the use of mental health resources. When faculty are educated on the causes and symptoms of mental health conditions, they are better prepared to identify and help college students.
4. Partner with students who want to help.
Seventy-eight percent of students feel optimistic about their future. What could it look like to harness students’ strengths and treat them as equal partners in developing solutions to today’s challenges? Many institutions have already begun this work by creating student advisory councils, taking a data-driven approach using student surveys, and ensuring diverse representation and perspectives of students when seeking their input.
Learn how telehealth can support mental health needs
TimelyMD helps colleges and universities eliminate barriers to getting students the help they need by offering 24/7 access to high-quality care in all 50 states at no cost to students. Focused on improving the health of student populations, TimelyMD’s campus-wide telehealth solution gives students one point of contact — anytime, anywhere — to access care and immediate treatment for medical or mental health concerns from board-certified physicians and licensed counselors.
Contact TimelyMD for more information about how telehealth services can provide the mental health support your students need.
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