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As Pandemic Lifts, Student Mental Health Needs Shift

Have we entered a season of hope for student mental health?

The outlook for student well-being may finally be improving with COVID-19 cases going down, vaccinations going up, and more schools announcing plans to return to primarily in-person instruction this fall.

As executive director of Mental Health at TimelyMD, a telehealth provider focused solely on the unique needs of college students, I believe we are in the early stages of rounding the corner and our journey to support students must continue full throttle. For administrators, faculty and staff who feel it is more nuanced than ever to fully grasp what students are going through and where they feel they are headed, you are in good company – among your peers and your students.

Dr. Janice A. HallDr. Janice A. Hall

Our company recently surveyed more than 1,300 college students to see how they were faring one year after the pandemic forced schools to close and, unfortunately, four out of five say they continue to experience increased stress and/or anxiety. They are especially concerned with the quality of their education and issues stemming from social isolation. On the bright side, nine out of 10 students have found at least one coping mechanism to help them feel better and two-thirds reported seeking emotional support of some kind.

These results indicate that students are still finding it incredibly difficult to cope with the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. That’s because even good changes – like being able to resume more activities the pandemic has forced students to miss out on – bring about uncertainty, and students are experiencing those changes across a vast spectrum. Some students are feeling hope, others are coping with loss, and some are expressing ambivalence.

As the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University recently reported, 99 percent of colleges and universities have provided access to virtual mental health resources through telehealth during the pandemic. Now is the time to double-down on these and other efforts that make students feel supported and connected, rather than scaling back services like mental health care as societal conditions improve. As students learn to navigate what a “new normal” feels like in society and on campus, the transition back may be difficult for some. Colleges and universities that heavily promote their well-being efforts with a culture of caring will be best positioned to address the chasm we have in student mental health.

So what are the best ways to achieve that? One idea to explore is leaning into strategies tailored for various student populations, such as:

  • Students of color. Mental health concerns during campus re-openings are likely to be higher for students of color, whose populations are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Many Black students continue to experience trauma associated with the country’s racial reckoning, while Asian students are grappling with attacks on their community. One study found only a third of Latinx students seek care for mental health, and that rate is even lower for Black (25%) and Asian (22%) students.
  • LGBTQIA+ students. It’s been well-documented that gender minority students in particular had significantly higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts relative to cisgender students. In our survey, nearly nine out of 10 students who identify as transgender or non-binary said they’ve sought out some kind of emotional support in the past year to help manage stress and anxiety, and they need support at much higher rates than other cohorts.
  • Community college students, and especially adult learners. Forty percent of community college students are over the age of 25, and many work full-time and have dependents. As declining undergraduate enrollment has indicated, community colleges have by far been the most impacted sector. Not only do the needs of community college students differ sharply from those at four-year institutions, but so should the programs designed to support them.
  • Male students. Our data indicate that women are about four times more likely to seek mental health support than their male counterparts – a statistic that’s held virtually flat before and since the pandemic began. What that suggests is we should consider marketing mental health services differently for men so they better understand the benefits of early intervention, such as talking with a health coach about the barriers to good eating and exercise.
  • First- and second-year students. At four-year campuses that operated remotely during the current academic year, half of the undergraduate student body will be adjusting to campus life for the first time this fall. Orientation programs and peer mentoring efforts designed for sophomore students may ease social anxieties for students eager to return to somewhere they’ve never been in the first place.

Understanding these distinct populations at a granular level is important if we are to reach these students where they are. Promoting and increasing awareness of available resources – such as the counseling center, telehealth, and other well-being initiatives – will improve community-wide health literacy and prompt students to reach out, even when they just need to talk.

We know all too well that health and well-being are integral to students’ academic performance, retention and resilience in life. Given all that has transpired in the past year, it is imperative that moving forward we provide students with the resources they need to succeed.

Dr. Janice A. Hall is executive director of mental health at TimelyMD, a telehealth company specializing in higher education.

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