The detrimental ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education won’t be going away any time soon, and student mental health is becoming an increasingly urgent issue, according to a recent EAB report.
The white paper, “Navigating the Recovery: A Long Term Perspective on Student Success Following the Pandemic and What Actions You Can Take Now,” notes three student success issues that were made worse by the pandemic: K-12 learning loss, high staff turnover rates in higher education, and student mental health needs.
“The pandemic exacerbated long-standing education equity issues and could ultimately reverse decades of work on access and completion,” the report noted. “We should approach this challenge as an opportunity to finally eliminate many unfair barriers to college completion while strengthening our value proposition for tomorrow’s students.”
In the coming years, students who went through their schooling during the pandemic will be the majority of students in higher education, the report notes.
“We found that student success leaders should anticipate at least five more years of elevated student needs,” the report noted. “Lower K-12 test scores extend back to elementary school and foretell heightened demand on academic support staff. Dramatically elevated mental health concerns present an evolving challenge that most schools are not yet ready to meet. Meanwhile, labor market churn among student support staff hinders efforts to get ready, yet also creates an opportunity to implement bold new strategies.”
Of these three issues, student mental health should be the top concern, said EAB Managing Director Dr. Ed Venit, author of the white paper.
"That is a not new challenge, in the sense that we've had mental health concerns for a long time among our students, and there's been a dramatic uptick over the last decade in the demands on services,” Venit said. “But really now, it's becoming a campus-wide issue, and we have data that we've found from other reports that are out there, which you saw replicated in the white paper, that says this is now a bigtime student success challenge in a way that it may not have been fully appreciated before the pandemic but can no longer be ignored in that regard because of just how meaningful it is on student attrition."
The report describes the state of student mental health as a full-blown crisis since the start of the pandemic, with various stressors negatively affecting students. The need for campus mental health services is escalating, also in part due to potentially less stigma around mental health help, said EAB Associate Director Kate Brown.
And conventional approaches to address this issue just are not enough anymore, Brown said.
“What we've seen through the pandemic is student wellbeing, student mental health ... can't just be a student affairs or a counseling center priority or responsibility,” Brown said. “It's really important that stakeholders across campus are engaged in this work and equipped to fulfill their role, and that's an uncomfortable change for many institutions. For many years, the traditional status quo has been [that] the counseling center leads that work, student affairs takes ownership of that work. That's still very much the case but more and more, we need faculty to play a role in directing students to best-fit resources. It's important with diminishing resources to support student mental health that fundraisers are involved in collaborating with mental health leaders to figure out ways to fundraise to meet escalating demand. So there's a lot of collaboration and engagement across campus that needs to happen.
This call has raised questions from faculty and academic leaders about how to best approach possible remedies, including confusion about the roles they should play, budgetary concerns, and being overwhelmed from the slew of options out there, Brown and Venit said.
Campus mental health services need to also evolve to accommodate more demographics, Brown said.
“What we've seen pre-COVID and just traditionally the status quo approach on campuses to mental health support being a student visits the counseling center ..., that tends to favor cisgender, female, white students and their preferences,” Brown said. “And we've certainly seen over the last couple of years the growing importance of providing support for students from a variety of different demographic groups and making sure there are various pathways to that support. We can't assume that there's one pathway and that suits every student preferences and needs. And that's so important because if we don't have a variety of pathways, that means that some students are not going to access support."
The same need to improve exists so that schools can better serve the LGBTQ+ communities on campus. Failing in this regard could have horrible repercussions, Venit said.
"When you look at the numbers around mental health concerns on campus, they are going to be elevated for your LGBTQ+ population in some pretty significant ways,” Venit said. “And here we're talking about super high stakes stuff like suicide … and things along the lines here that we need to be careful of and mindful for. If schools aren't putting that little extra twist on their work here to be addressing students who may be going through these conversations with themselves, wondering what to do, and if they are alone or not in these regards, it's an area of focus for a lot of campuses."