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College and university leaders know firsthand the toll of COVID-19 on students’ mental health over the past year. Higher education deals with the realities of the dramatic increases (53%) in levels of depression, hopelessness, and loneliness due to the coronavirus pandemic. So, how do college and university educators address pandemic fatigue going into this academic year?
More than 35,000 students participated in the annual Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement (BCSSE) administered by Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research. The survey will remain open until mid-September, ultimately collecting data from nearly 50,000 entering first-year students.
Results to date found 80% to 89% of high school students entering college across racial identity groups were optimistic about their first year of college. Seventy-six percent didn’t believe COVID-19 interfered much with their college plans. Recent data, however, shows a steep drop in student optimism. The percentage of those who were “very optimistic” dropped from 60% in May to 42% in August.
Additionally, 53% of first-year students reported a substantial increase in mental and emotional exhaustion. Of those, nearly 70% indicated “high expectations of academic difficulty,” compared to 42% of their peers who did not experience greater exhaustion.
Regardless of whether these declining percentages are influenced by the spread of the delta variant or reflect first-day-of-school jitters, it reveals that students need reassurance about their institutions’ plans for safeguarding their health, and they need realistic expectations for the quality of their college experience to eliminate (or at least reduce) emotional exhaustion.
Students are more stressed in 2021
According to new survey results released by TimelyMD, 60% of college students feel more stress and anxiety than they did a year ago. With the delta variant dashing hopes for a “normal” school year, it’s no wonder students are increasingly stressed and anxious.
The top concern for college students? Sixty-four percent are most concerned about the effect COVID-19 social distancing guidelines will have on their social lives when they get back to school. Social distancing for students means more than simply missing parties and study groups. It affects their mental and emotional health, their ability to learn, job prospects, and identity formation. Regardless of how interactive a virtual experience a faculty member can create, Zoom cannot replace an in-person exchange between a student and a faculty member.
As students grapple with their identities and try to discover their core values, they need peers and mentors who share their sentiments and can help them cope. Unfortunately, remote learning in 2020 provided few routes to establishing these key relationships and identities, and the coming year isn’t shaping up to be much different.
“College is really about the social sphere that you create,” said Peirce Robinson, a senior theater major at Brandeis University. “A big part of it is seeing people, bumping into people you know, people you don’t know. But that did not exist anywhere near the same capacity. So much of your social life just ceased to exist. And it’s awfully depressing to be lumped inside with maybe two or three other people, and not be able to have that same sort of social connection and energy. There’s only so much time you can spend at a computer.”
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to improve social environments during this pandemic, but educators can focus on supporting students’ mental health struggles, academic stressors, and emotional exhaustion that are a result of the pandemic.
Remove barriers to student care with telehealth
What colleges do to create an environment where mental health is prioritized
Despite the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine, the pandemic is still not over, it’s up to school leaders to create the right environment for young people to thrive. Here are five tips to help higher education leaders create a culture that highlights student mental health and well-being.
1. Normalize focus on mental health
Create programming that normalizes a focus on mental health, self-care, and mindfulness — educating all levels of staff, professors, coaches, administration, and even contract workers occupying positions on campuses such as food service, maintenance, and security. Create a variety of ways for students to get assistance so they feel comfortable reaching out. For example, a student may naturally connect with a security officer or a librarian. So, these individuals must also be trained to point a student in the right direction if concerns are requiring mental health support.
2. Train faculty and staff on how to respond
Everyone on campus, including resident life staff, support staff, and administration leadership, should be aware of the campus crisis process as well as the warning signs and red and yellow flags that may put a student at risk. Some students need a listening ear or assistance accessing the next level of appropriate care. This assistance can come from anyone that a student feels safe reaching out to. Education, training, and building an environment focused on holistic wellness will create a safer environment for students before they reach burnout or need crisis intervention.
3. Establish appropriate accomodations
The campus must offer flexible scheduling for both in-person and online options that will accommodate a student’s need for balance and wellness when they may be suffering in other areas mentally and/or emotionally. These options must be available without penalty and also support the student’s effort to continue their education. Providing options sets the precedence that holistic health and well-being are the focus of the institution.
4. Offer health and self-care activities
Campus activities that focus on self-care, nutrition, and overall mental and physical health ensure that students know the importance that the institution places on wellness – paying attention to their bodies. Ongoing mental health training and awareness for students, faculty, and staff should be as rigorous as the training for abuse, assault, and campus safety.
5. Keep up with the guidelines
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College Health Association (ACHA) published COVID-19 guidelines and considerations for higher education administrators to weigh as their campuses re-open. Additionally, there is valuable information regarding student mental health during the pandemic at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Also, The Jed Foundation (JED), a leading nonprofit organization in protecting emotional health and preventing suicide among young adults, created a set of guidelines for addressing student mental health and well-being for higher education institutions reopening campus. Higher education institutions must take a comprehensive, public-health approach when it comes to student well-being on campus.
How telehealth can help you support emotionally exhausted students
Telehealth can helps colleges and universities eliminate barriers to getting students the help they need. And 24/7 access to high-quality care in all 50 states at no cost to students is one way to make sure students always have access to emotional support. Focused on improving the health issues 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, licensed counselors, and healthcare workers.
Contact TimelyMD for more information about how telehealth services can provide the mental health support your students need.