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. 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:
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.