Considering the Mental Health of Students on Campus

Sad teenager

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These days, reading the news can feel overwhelming: a pandemic, climate change, political tension. But as adults, we’ve learned strategies for calming our worries and fears. We understand ourselves, our relationships, our role in the world. We know how to use our skills, talents, and connections to adjust to external stresses, even in the most challenging times.

Young people are still finding their place and learning those coping skills. They are building relationships and figuring out what kinds of connections they need. They’re taking the risks and making the mistakes that life requires of all of us as we learn who we are and what we’re seeking. It’s hard to be young, and this is an especially challenging time for those who don’t have the awareness, skills, and resources that their more senior counterparts have garnered.

So, how do we support students during this challenging time? How do we build understanding and compassion so that we can meet them where they are and help them get what they need?

Navigating an Emotionally Challenging Time
Professionals at Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), are analyzing the impact of COVID-19 on college students’ mental health. CCMH reports: “Surveys of college students conducted after March 2020 have repeatedly suggested that psychological distress among college students has increased.” Data captured from nearly 50,000 students who were seeking treatment at more than 140 institutions reveals that “Regardless of the reason for seeking mental health care, the vast majority of students seeking mental health care reported that COVID-19 has negatively impacted at least one aspect of life (85%), with mental health (65%), motivation or focus (61%), loneliness or isolation (60%), academics (59%), and missed experiences and opportunities (54%) as the most frequent areas affected. These will be critical aspects of the student experience for colleges and universities to focus on in the coming months.”

Clearly, pandemic stress has made life harder for our students. The resurgence of the Delta variant, is especially difficult, both logistically and emotionally. It’s challenging our stamina and escalating at a particularly difficult moment for students and educators alike.

Fostering Connections
For many sophomores, this is their first year of in-person learning on campus. Although they have experience with higher education instruction, this year they learn how to work and live on campus.

“One of our key variables for student success is how connected somebody is on campus,” explains Elizabeth (Betsy) Ritzman, director of the Wellness Center at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. “And so having academic achievement in an online environment doesn’t allow for the kinds of relationship-building that, we’ve noticed, really help our students stay connected to the university, stay connected to their academic dreams and goals. So, we know that we’re going to have to build that with the incoming class, which will be doubled this year.”

Both freshmen and sophomores are establishing those on-campus connections this year. In the same way, it will take their upper-class peers time to rekindle the vital relationships that connect them to the institution and create additional dimensions to their learning experience. Ritzman explains: “The absence of those on-campus jobs, mentors, the relationships that you build with the mentor when you walk out the door with them after class, those are the things that we think that we’re going to have to really emphasize in terms of rebuilding.”

A New Spectrum of Needs
Students returning to their institutions are on a whole new spectrum of needs after their 2020-21 experience. Ritzman points out: “A lot of students thrived in an online environment, and then a lot of students did not thrive.”

Some students were uncomfortable, scared, or anxious. Others were more deeply challenged, losing parents or family members. Some students lost their sense of economic security. Some experienced “adverse conditions at home” Ritzman explains.

Every student’s pandemic experience was different, and they may not have had the opportunity or resources to get perspective on what they’ve been through. “If they’re bringing an additional burden of those problems and unmet needs, it just kind of doubles up.” Ritzman points out. “We always have a crushing demand in the first, I’d say, six weeks of the semester. That’s going to happen probably faster this year.”

Ritzman recently met with peer health care directors; She notes that relationship violence and substance abuse as “two high vulnerability areas” that health care directors identify for college students.

“We’re probably going to have a lot more substance abuse and conduct cases. Students are thirsty for social interactions. So, I think housing will probably have their hands full.” Ritzman explains. “I expect domestic violence and sexual assault will also be major concerns just because of the environment of not being able to address these problems over the past years because people have been behind doors. They haven’t been hanging out much with each other, and they’re ready to. Along with that goes drinking. Students who come to college who haven’t been drinking, they don’t really know their limits and then they’re meeting a whole bunch of new people.”

How the Community Can Help
Build connections with students, more this year than ever. Reach out to them. Talk to them. Check on them.

Also, meet your team at the wellness center. Understand what resources they have available so that you can direct students to wellness services if you think they need support. Invite your colleagues in the wellness center to talk to your students, perhaps mid-semester, after the introductory sessions have subsided. This way, students are reminded that support is available.

Ritzman also emphasizes the importance of creating trust and open dialogue among colleagues, especially when discussing the COVID-19 vaccine: “We need to build a culture of disclosure about being vaccinated or not, without stigma. You know, if you’re not vaccinated , fine. We can debate about that some other time. But I want you to feel comfortable telling me that you’re not vaccinated. So that you and I can decide together — what do we need. It’s sort of like that, you know, back in the day recognizing the need to talk about sexual history…my main concern has been people in classrooms, people in different departments working together. It’s a pandemic. And we’re grown-ups. We can have conversations. We don’t have to debate.”

Finally, Ritzman advises: take care of yourself. Figure out how to minimize your own stress. Recognize that your students look to you for cues about how to make sense of this difficult time. “People need to be conscious of self-management. It’s so easy to spread anxiety.” Ritzman points out. “We’re surrounded by people who are permeable that way. And we need to manage ourselves and say: ‘wow, I’m just really freaking out here. I need to take a minute and take some deep breaths and not spread that contagion. .'”

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