The changes in the higher education sector due to the coronavirus pandemic, such as campus-wide closures and the transition to online learning, have forced many college students to juggle their physical well being with possible food insecurity, financial stress, housing concerns and lack of resources to complete their academic work.
This has impacted students’ mental health, with many suffering from feelings of loneliness, isolation, increased anxiety, sleeping troubles and difficulty concentrating on schoolwork, said Erica Riba, director of higher education and student engagement at the Jed Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to protect the emotional health of the country’s teens and young adults.
“There are a lot of unknowns and uncertainty right now,” she said. “We don’t know how long this will last, when things will go back to normal and what the new normal will be, so it’s completely reasonable for college students to feel unsettled, confused and anxious.”
The pandemic can affect students in different ways. Some are doing well back at home, spending time with their siblings and family members, while others might not have a similar safe and welcoming environment, said Riba.
“We’re all dealing with this pandemic at the exact same time, that’s what’s so unique,” Riba added. “So it’s important we check in on our mental health and [it is] also a good reminder to check in on others.”
In the LGBT community, for example, some students come out for the first time while in college. However, with those students going back home to quarantine, not all of them have a family that supports their identity or uses the correct pronouns while referring to them.
“For them, the whole experience creates additional stress and [a] mental health situation because they are not in that supportive and loving environment that really affirms their identity,” said Dr. Santiago Solis, vice president for campus life and inclusive excellence at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania (ESU).
Active Minds, a nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for students, is currently in the process of researching the impact of the coronavirus on college students. The organization found that, for students, COVID-19 has “worsened their mental health in some way.” Additionally, students remain stressed about their academics and grades in the short term, Active Minds chief program officer Laura Horne said.
“A lot of students are saying that they aren’t receiving a whole lot of communication from their schools as to what the scheduling flexibilities are with turning in assignments or in the grading system,” she added. “It seems to vary professor by professor … what kinds of communication and support they are getting.”
Students may also be going through stages of grief caused by the loss of a family member or friend to the coronavirus. On a smaller scale, students may also be experiencing the loss of a semester, graduation and an uncertain future.
“We will see students still in disbelief and not wanting to comply with the current restrictions, those in the bargaining and anger stages who are just frustrated and upset about how things have changed and those who will be depressed due to the magnitude of change that they have had to face,” said Dr. Joy Himmel, COVID-19 task force member and emertius member of the American College Health Association. “The hope is that we can all land on acceptance and be able to roll with the changes.”
Generally, universities and colleges have the responsibility to reach out to students, inform them of any decisions that are made and provide resources for students to help them be active in their decisions and choices going forward, she added.
ESU, for example, has worked to move some of its “normal” activities online in order to encourage student participation. It has also launched virtual bingo, game nights and yoga classes.
“Students can feel like they are still connected in some way shape or form,” said Dr. Amy Freeman, director of health and wellness at ESU. “Our bingo on Saturday nights has really taken off and students and staff seemed to be using that as a way to stay connected.”
Additionally, the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) has collaborated with the counseling services office, the Dean of Students Office and disability services office to offer support to students. A response team was created to answer students’ questions, and academic advisors are meeting with students daily to answer academic concerns and questions.
“Their relationships and connections with peers, instructors and staff changed overnight while they tried to navigate all of the changes to the remainder of their academic year,” said Dr. RaShonda Flint, assistant dean for undergraduate education and student academic affairs at University of Michigan’s LSA. “There is also general fear and anxiety around family resources and illness, and even their own resources and health. Rightfully so, students are struggling mentally and emotionally, and the impact on mental health is greatly concerning.”
Flint said “instructors play a huge role in supporting student mental health during this time, as they are actively engaging with students on a regular basis and students are looking to them for support and understanding. ”
In general, Riba recommended that faculty members set earlier deadlines for assignments rather than late evening or midnight ones in order to encourage healthier sleep patterns. Additionally, faculty members can set up “virtual” chat rooms to discuss the impact of the pandemic with students. Individual meetings and check ins can also be set up and faculty members should understand the steps to report an at-risk student.
She also suggested that students try to create a schedule every day, try new hobbies, avoid excessive media coverage and aim to take care of their own physical health through nutritious meals and exercise.
For those students who seek counseling at school, president of the American College Counseling Association Dr. Richard Tyler-Walker, suggested that those relationships be maintained. Many universities are offering telehealth options.
“You can just assume this time is impacting one’s mental health,” he said. “And just as any time where maybe we are rundown, or maybe we are getting over a cold, we need to treat ourselves with extra care. … Extra time to care for self and extra time to treat oneself gently and kindly would be beneficial to anyone, no matter where they are in their mental health.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Students can also text “START” TO 741-741 in order to reach the Crisis Text Line.
Sarah Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.