How to Address Students' Mental Health to Increase Retention

by Alice Anne Bailey | October 13, 2020
How to Address Students' Mental Health to Increase Retention

Part three of a three-part blog series that highlights how to retain students in the COVID-19 era. View part one here and part two here.

Click the image above to download Signal Vine's ebook "Supporting Students During COVID-19 and Beyond: The Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses."

How to Address Students' Mental Health to Increase Retention

Before COVID-19, 18- to 24-year-olds reported the lowest levels of mental health compared to any other age group in the country. 

In our Mental Health Crisis ebook, we noted that Gen Z students suffer from the following:

  • 2 out of 3 college students report feeling “overwhelmingly” anxious. Anxiety was the number one complaint at campus health centers from 2009-2016.
  • In a 2017 American College Health Association survey of college students, 40% reported feeling “so depressed it was difficult to function” at least once in the past year.
  • According to a recent Cigna health care survey, the loneliest generation in the United States today is not the oldest Americans but the youngest—specifically, young adults between 18 and 22 years old. Even before the pandemic, students on campus reported having many more superficial “friends” on social media than meaningful relationships.
  • Suicide rates among American 15- to 24-year-olds have risen 51% over the past 10 years. Prior to the pandemic, suicide was the second leading cause of death among college students. Further, 13% of college students reported that they had considered taking their own life. 

Mental health during COVID-19 is worsening

Now, mental health during COVID-19 is plummeting nationwide. It's no surprise that the pandemic has increased feelings of isolation and worsened the young adult mental health crisis. A CDC survey found that one in four people aged 18-24 seriously considered suicide in June 2020. Out of all 5,400 total respondents, 11% stated they had considered suicide, but the rate was significantly higher–25%–among traditional-aged college students. This is the state of mental health during COVID-19.

Furthermore, 75% of 18- to 24-year-olds reported at least one major mental health issue resulting from the pandemic, and 25% reported turning to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. 

Depression takes a toll on students' academic performance

When college students were asked to name specific problems they faced during emergency remote learning in the spring semester, 45% reported mental health issues.  Students are missing campus traditions, social events, and internship opportunities--everything they expected the “traditional” college experience to be. Mourning the loss of these typically exciting and engaging events can lead to depression. 

As a result, depression can lead to lower course attendance and disengagement from class. It can prevent students from completing assignments and lead to drop out. 

Feelings of isolation are more prominent

Students need to be surrounded by caring others who can lend a sympathetic ear to listen to struggles and complaints. They need people who can offer helpful feedback, advice, and encouragement. The inability to interact frequently and freely with peers, professors, and campus staff increases feelings of isolation.

Students who are learning from home or in their dorm rooms have been cut off from their social-emotional support network. Feelings of isolation lower students' mental health during COVID-19.

Anxiety negatively impacts students' academic success

Anxiety is also on the rise. The majority of students – 75% – are afraid of catching the virus and becoming sick. They don't feel safe living in residence halls.

mental health during covid-19

Students are also worried about family finances and their ability to become employed upon graduation. For example, some students will have to pay back student loans. Additionally, many face housing and food insecurity.

All of these stressors can lower students' academic success. This is because anxiety impacts both working memory and the ability to focus attention.

For example, people who are anxious find it hard to take in new information, process that information, and remember things. This means that students are less able to concentrate on readings and lectures, complete assignments, and perform well on tests.

What your school can do to help address students' mental health to increase retention

Overemphasize your school's offerings

Students need intensive mental health support now more than ever before. With this said, all support services need to be made available for remote students, keeping technology inequities in mind when deciding the format for delivery.

Campuses must also overemphasize the availability of services and how to access them in their communications efforts. In the past, students might have been able to walk into academic or counseling centers and receive help. They might be unaware of how or if that same service is currently being delivered. Also, some students, particularly first-gens and students of color, may be hesitant to reach out and ask where to find a particular service.  

Monitor students' mental health during COVID-19

Schools need to monitor students’ mental health on a regular basis. This is especially important because roughly 60-70% of college students who suffer from mental illness don't seek help on their own.

One way your school can do this is by sending our frequent mental health surveys. Results can then be used to design and deliver interventions. Note that these surveys should always end with information on how students can get immediate help, whether campus-based services or national mental health hotlines.

Faculty don’t have to be able to diagnose mental disorders. However, they should know how to connect students with various campus services or mental health hotlines when needed. With this said, it's a good idea to train faculty on identifying possible signs of distress among their students. These signs might include missing classes, not participating in discussions, or falling behind on assignments. 

Implement and encourage effective communication between staff, faculty, and students

Faculty and staff need training in effective communication skills. Here are some good communication strategies that your school's staff could implement:

  • Respect emotions by starting messages with human messages first. From there, launch into whatever information needs to be conveyed. 
  • Show concern by asking students how they are doing. Open-ended conversations provide an opportunity for students to tell a caring adult what is going on and if they're struggling with any mental or other health problems.
  • Listen effectively by using reflective listening techniques to show empathy and validate students’ feelings. 
  • Value cultural differences so that faculty and staff are respectful of students from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
  • Be positive by telling students that the current situation is temporary. Remind them that things will get better.
Encourage flexibility among staff and faculty

During COVID-19, students may not have a safe place to live and may be food insecure; they are concerned for their families’ financial and physical well-being. Students may lack adequate Internet access. Now is not the time to expect perfection. Decide what is most critical for students to learn, and be willing to let other, less important things go for now. Be flexible on remote communication methods by offering options beyond videoconferencing. Be understanding and make adjustments on deadlines.

Use two-way text messaging

Text messaging is an inexpensive but effective way to send large numbers of messages out, while also allowing individual students to text their responses back. One of the most prominent outcomes of the COVID-19 epidemic is that it has revealed the differences in technology and internet access between rural and urban communities. We can see this digital divide as well in low- and high-income households.

For instance, a full 20% of all U.S. households don't have broadband service. Instead, these households rely on smartphones as their primary means of internet access. These numbers are even higher among Black (24%) and Latinx (35%) households. Also, 97% of adults between 18-29 years old own and use a smartphone. 

Students aren't on campus as frequently. For instance, they might be online or on-campus but are spending more time in their dorm room. With this said, they're less likely to be aware of the things they need to do and when.

mental health during covid-19

Students need more reminders about payments, registration deadlines, and the FAFSA. Text messaging has been shown to be highly effective in retaining students and making sure they return after their first year. This is because text messaging gives staff and faculty the ability to nudge students towards finishing their tasks on time.

Texting can deliver nudges or reminders to students 

Text-based nudges are also an excellent way to encourage students to seek help. Texting can raise awareness of services and let students know where to find them.

In particular, make sure students know about food pantries, housing assistance, and financial supports such as emergency grants. Your school can use texting to follow up and make sure that students are indeed are getting the help they need. 

What texting can deliver for your school's faculty and staff

Faculty and staff should also make an effort to check in on each student individually by text or phone to ask “are you okay?”, “how are you feeling?”, or “what is worrying you right now?" They can ask students about any academic concerns, mental health issues, or food and housing insecurity. These caring-toned messages can let students know that your school cares about them and wants to hear about their needs and experiences. 

The benefit of Signal Vine is that it allows for two-way communication at scale. Asking open-ended questions – which you can only do via two-way communication – starts important conversations that encourage students to text back and tell staff when they need help.

mental health during covid-19
Click the image above for a detailed list of national 24/7 crisis services for students.

Learn more

For a thorough list of recommendations on how to support students’ mental health, see our ebook The Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses. Also, for more information about how to address students' mental health to increase retention, including tips and recommendations, you can download The Student Retention Guidebook 2.0 here.

* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant and Adjunct Faculty Member at American University. For a list of references used for this blog, click here.

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