“The pain that made you the odd one out is the song that connects you to the world.”
That poem — “Eleven,” by Tanya Markul — provides a potent image of the story of mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students have long struggled with mental health issues on campuses, often in shame and secrecy. They have done so in large part because of the prejudice and discriminatory actions that often occur when students are open about their illnesses or take leaves of absence. They are also subjected to forced exclusion: Half (four) of the Ivy League schools have policies that include “community disruption” as grounds for an involuntary leave of absence, even when there is no evidence that the “disruptive” behaviors of students with mental health conditions pose a threat to the safety of their peers.
Simultaneously, students are witnessing much-needed and more frequent conversations surrounding mental health on campus. Their painful song has become our painful song. In the U.S. and worldwide, the adverse impact of COVID-19 on mental health is devastating. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41 percent of Americans grapple with at least one mental or behavioral health issue resulting from the pandemic.
Staggering loss of life, lingering effects of illness and treatment, economic instability and suffering, academic and vocational disruptions, political strife and racial disparities have become the accompanying melodies of the COVID-19 chorus. All too often, the melody’s tones are anxiety, depression, loneliness, distress, sleepless nights and suicide.
Students and all individuals with mental illnesses have an intimate relationship with these experiences. Even before the pandemic, one-third to one-half of college students struggled with mental health issues that interfered with their capacity to thrive, the American College Health Association found. There are also alarming gaps in access to essential, lifesaving resources. The National Institute of Mental Health documented in pre-pandemic times that nearly 60 percent of U.S. adults in need of mental health services did not receive them.
These distressing facts do little to change the song that somehow, these students are the exception: a problem group of students that do not fit seamlessly into the culture of higher education. Colleges and universities shy away from investing in student mental health despite the strong correlation of positive mental health with academic and vocational success in life. The institutions question whether it is “their business” to provide mental health resources.
While institutions are seemingly held accountable by laws that mandate the accommodation of students with mental illness, the song of shame associated with mental illness continues to permeate campus life. Students are reluctant to seek help or find that when they do, that there is insufficient access to the resources they need. They often experience pushback around accommodation requests and are referred to community providers for treatment that proves inaccessible due to constraints such as time, finances and location.
COVID-19 has begun to change this tune. Institutions are implementing some of the measures they previously dismissed when it comes to supporting not only students with mental illnesses, but all students. Remote learning is available at all times of the day, and students can choose whether to study on or off campus. Mental health services are increasingly accessible online.
Compelled by the pandemic’s unprecedented disruption, colleges and universities are finally beginning to recognize that students’ mental health affects their functioning and consequently, higher education institutions’ bottom line. Clearly, institutions have a financial incentive to remaining viable during a pandemic. Staff and faculty, too, have seen their own mental health suffer in recent months, creating more institutional empathy towards student mental health; they see, feel and understand the connection between mental health and student outcomes.
If there is a silver lining to COVID-19, it is that the pain of mental health distress has connected higher education institutions to students who live with mental illness. But this cannot be the final chapter in the story. Increased prioritization of mental health issues must transcend these times, becoming a permanent fixture on campus.
Dori S. Hutchinson is director of services at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University. Sharon Shapiro is a trustee and community liaison of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a leading disability inclusion organization based in Boston.