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Support Mental Health During COVID-19

by Haleigh Cadd | June 9, 2020
Support Mental Health During COVID-19

Part two of a three-part series on how higher ed institutions can address the growing mental health crisis on today's college and university campuses. Read part one here and part three here.

The impact of COVID-19 on students' mental health

According to Active Minds, 91% of college students are anxious about their lives as a result of COVID-19. Also, 81% are sad and disappointed. Likewise, 80% feel lonely and isolated because of schools closing. Thus, it seems necessary that institutions implement initiatives to support students' mental health.

For instance, college students miss their friends, campus traditions, and the social-emotional support network they had on campus. In fact, remote learning has made students frustrated. Some feel that remote learning is of lower quality than in-person teaching. Moreover, many students are struggling with financial stress from a personal or family job loss and anxiety.

support mental healthCOVID-19 communications impact college students' mental health

Students are also reacting to how their institutions are handling the pandemic. For instance, the quality of communication and support services provided by the institutions impacts students' outlook and mental health.

In a national survey that asked students how their opinion of their school had changed since the outbreak, students answered...

  • Significantly worse: 7%
  • Slightly worse: 34%
  • Same as before: 32%
  • Slightly better: 20%
  • Significantly better: 7%

Follow-up questions found that there's a large percentage of students whose opinion of their school has decreased since COVID-19. In this same survey, 67% of students said that their opinion of the school worsened.

Institutional communications

Social media chatter in March and April revealed many students didn't know what the plan was for instruction. What is more, some professors weren't communicating well about coursework.

At the same time, students were frustrated by the number of emails that they received. These emails entailed impersonal announcements from the institution, as well as notifications about online coursework that were sent automatically from online teaching platforms.

Students who have grown up with text messaging do not open emails often. This results in messages piling up in their inboxes. Moreover, for Gen Z, it's oftentimes overwhelming and time consuming to sort through and differentiate the important emails from general notifications.

In other words, students want a more personal, two-way communication with people who they have meaningful relationships with on campus. More importantly, they want a more personal communication process with their instructors and advisors they generally had access to on-campus before COVID-19.

Two-way communications support students' mental health

Text messaging is accessible and promotes increased support for students' mental health. For instance, about 30% of low-income students and students of color can only access the Internet through a mobile device. Also, text messaging is more accessible due to the speed it enables. For example, it takes students about 90 seconds to read and respond to text messages.

Furthermore, faculty who teach virtually and staff who collect forms and fees may be the only access students have to the campus community. This is especially the case when students are off-campus. That is to say, relationships matter.

Faculty, in particular, play a significant and influential role in students’ lives. For instance, students want to feel that their professors are invested in their success. Even before COVID-19, decades of research have shown that student-faculty relationships are a critical factor in students' attachments to the institution.

On the other hand, students are more likely to drop out without strong relationships with the institution's faculty. Thus, in this critical time, faculty and staff have a role to play to meet students’ emotional needs.

Students want to know their colleges care about them as individuals just as much as institutions care about their academic performance. I would urge you to consider having a staff team dedicated to sending students texts on a regular basis. This would help keep students engaged and maintain a sense of community.

Things to consider prompting in COVID-19 communications

Years of research have found that in times of crisis, it’s important to convey the following in all interactions with college students:

1. They are not alone

Virtual interaction with peers and campus staff help students know that they are not going through this alone. Therefore, colleges should 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?"

By asking students to share a little bit about what their life is like outside of classes, students have the opportunity to tell a caring adult what is going on. Faculty and staff don’t have to be counselors, but they should know how to get students in touch with one.

2. They matter

Also, students need to know they are cared about. As humans, we all need to feel that someone is proud of us and that we play an important part of a group. Highlight each students’ contribution to the class and tell them why they are a uniquely important class member.

3. Routines matter

Structure, such as predictable routines, helps students feel like things are more normal and under control.

4. Hope is key

Students needs to be reminded that the current situation is temporary and that things will get better in the near future.

5. Safety makes students feel cared for

Institutions who show concern for everyone’s personal safety can promote a sense of security among students. For instance, when faculty and staff send text messages, these messages should convey to students that it's normal to feel anxious, alone, and like they don't know what to do.

Further, faculty and staff should be encouraged to demonstrate that it's okay to be vulnerable by being open with their own feelings. I would recommend that you announce that everyone is in a new situation and trying new approaches to delivering instruction right now—some of these might work, but it’s okay if they don’t.

For example, instructors can start each class by sharing how their life has been disrupted by coronavirus, then invite students to do the same. This helps students process their emotions and creates a sense of community and togetherness in the class.

6. Let students be "in the know"

It’s important to feel “in the know” during a crisis. Being unsure of what is occurring around them–whether now or in the future– can create stress and anxiety. Institutions should be as transparent as possible, even if that means telling students that plans may change week to week.

7. Give them a sense of control

One of the most stressful parts of the current pandemic is that it is out of our control. Where possible, giving students some control over their learning can decrease anxiety and feelings of helplessness.

8. Be understanding

When students were on campus, they appeared to be relatively equal. Their living situation was mostly the same. For instance, on campus, they were living in the same dorms, eating in the same cafeteria, and using the same campus services. Faculty and staff probably didn't know the financial circumstances of their students.

On the other hand, living at home changes the equity equation. We need to understand that students might be ashamed to discuss their home life when explaining why they cannot complete assignments. For instance, lacking or sharing technology or caring for their own children or younger siblings can impact the time students are able to study and attend class.

Learn more

Download our ebook below to learn more about the student mental health crisis as well as recommendations and best practices that you can implement at your institution to better meet student needs.

* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant.

Learn how you can support your students' mental health during COVID-19 and beyond.
Learn how you can support your students' mental health during COVID-19 and beyond.
Download our ebook

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