COVID-19 and the financial toll it has taken, and the suffering created by systemic racism and our growing awareness of it, has had a troubling impact on the mental health and wellness of college students. Inside Higher Ed’s recent Student Voice survey of college students (conducted by College Pulse and supported by Kaplan) found that one year into the pandemic, 65 percent of students rate their mental health as “fair” or “poor.” In addition, according to an April survey by Active Minds, a national mental health advocacy group, 80 percent of college students say the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. Further, on our campus, the University of New Hampshire, a significant number of students report struggles with motivation, worry and feelings of isolation.
Given that students -- like the rest of us -- are reeling from the impact of the pandemic and the country’s painful and ongoing reckoning with systemic racism, these findings may not come as a huge surprise. However, a closer look at the data paints a more complicated picture.
While COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenges many students face, nationally two-thirds of students who sought mental health treatment over the past year did so for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. Some early reports indicate that across the entire U.S. population over all, suicide rates may have actually declined in 2020.
At my own campus, demand for UNH’s campus mental health services is actually down from previous years, though it has been fairly steady over the course of this academic year. Not only that, but students’ academic performance actually improved this fall over the previous fall.
What conclusions can we draw from these more nuanced findings?
First, students as a group are doing better than they might think. They are certainly more resilient than the scary stories about the mental health crisis would have you believe. While that may be cold comfort to anyone who has grappled with mental health challenges this year, the data speak to resilience in the face of adversity.
Second, although things may not be as bleak as they seem, we should not ignore students’ mental health needs. If anything, now is the time to double down. Although students are performing well academically and rates of hospitalization for our students are down, students are clearly communicating that they want and need more help.
We need to send a message to students as we make our way out of the pandemic that no problem is too big or too small to address, and mental health and wellness can take different shapes. It can look like a cycling class, sleep coaching, a picnic in the park with friends, exploring a new club or activity, an appointment with a medical provider, support from a mentor, therapy, a moment of laughter over a foolish animal video or even time spent reflecting on the aspects of our lives for which we are grateful. In fact, some mental health needs might be served best by activities or engagements other than one-to-one therapy in traditional counseling settings.
I believe that, to best serve our students, we need to prioritize our ability to be nimble and to collaborate. For example, last spring we, along with many other higher ed institutions, shifted our service model and offered therapy via telehealth. This fall UNH was able to offer teletherapy and in-person services while maintaining practices that were consistent with the CDC workplace recommendations. Further, in order to meet the demand for teletherapy for our residential and remote students, we established a collaboration with Uwill, a teletherapy platform that provides video, phone and text-based counseling.
Campus Partners for Student Wellness
We, and the students at UNH, are also fortunate to have strong campus partners in wellness and student success. Our campus colleagues include, but are not limited to: Living Well Services, the Beauregard Center, the Office of International Students & Scholars, Health & Wellness, faculty, Campus Rec, the Center for Academic Resources, Residential Life, Student Accessibility Services, and associate deans and department chairs.
Each of these centers and units provide student resources that support wellness, build community and foster academic success -- all of which are vital dimensions of mental health and wellness. The collaboration encompasses a wide range of efforts. We, and they, display brochures that highlight different resources around campus. We include links on our webpage to theirs, we provide workshops and trainings, and we attend shared virtual and in-person visibility efforts.
As suggested in the recent Student Voice survey analysis, many of our faculty -- who collectively have the ability to reach the entire student body -- share information on resources for student well-being and academic success in their syllabi.
These connections have developed out of a shared understanding that student success, and therefore the university’s success, is grounded in student wellness. It has and will require that we partner to communicate creatively and consistently.
For example, as suggested in the recent Student Voice survey analysis, many of our faculty -- who collectively have the ability to reach the entire student body -- share information on resources for student well-being and academic success in their syllabi. We also provide faculty and staff with a guide on how to help students in distress.
Further, to support the significant number of students who are reporting that their mental health has suffered over this past year, we are working to help our entire community understand how UNH’s services fit into the broader picture of care -- which includes self-care, informal care, primary mental health care through our counseling center and specialized care through our community providers.
If we have learned anything over the past year, it is that students, and the institutions that serve them, have reason to take heart. This year of unexpected and overwhelming challenges, of pain and grief, has also demonstrated just how strong we are, especially when we stand together.