By Mary Kate McGrath - August 10, 2020
In March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges and universities to shut down in-person operations, encourage students to leave on-campus living accommodations, and transition to a remote-learning model. The unprecedented conditions of the pandemic have put a strain on college and university student mental health, exacerbating an already-dire crisis on campus and forcing leaders to rethink how mental healthcare is delivered.
In July, the American College Health Association conducted a mental health survey for college and university students, and found increased rates of depression and financial stress among college-age individuals, as well as increased difficulties accessing campus mental resources amid the pandemic. The survey results offer data and insight into the scope of the challenges college students face, and can inform college leaders' decisions around providing mental healthcare to students amid the pandemic.
Even prior to COVID-19, college or university officials had major concerns about the state of college or university student mental health. In 2019, a major study found that suicidal thinking, severe depression, and rates of self-injury among U.S. college students more than doubled over the last decade, as per Reuters. Evaluating data from two large annual surveys of college undergraduates between 2007-2018, researchers observed a profound worsening of mental health indicators including depression, anxiety, low flourishing, and suicidal planning or attempts, especially in the latter half of the decade. University counseling centers have struggled to manage the influx of students accessing mental healthcare in recent years, with many facing staffing shortages and leaving students with long wait times for sessions.
The coronavirus outbreak means that mental health resources will be in even higher demand. Past surveys have already showed the negative impact of COVID-19 on college-age individuals - 81% of full-time college or university students reported facing financial difficulties during the pandemic, 93% of young adults said they’d been impacted by the pandemic, and 75% of surveyed college students reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.
The ACHA survey offers further insights into how the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening the college mental health crisis, including ongoing financial stressors, discriminatory behavior they’ve faced as a result of the pandemic, and broader anxieties about how long the pandemic will last. Never before has there been a more dire need for effective, creative ways to raise awareness about and deliver care. By examining several key takeaways from the recent mental health survey, administrators can make more informed decisions moving forward.
The ACHA mental health survey compiled answers from 18,764 students on over 14 campuses between March and May of 2020. The new set of survey items focused on students’ experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, including their attitudes, concerns, preventative behaviors, and their perceived supportiveness of colleges or universities related to COVID-19.
Researchers found the information largely confirmed suspicions about how students are coping with the unprecedented crisis, but several takeaways can still be valuable for college counseling centers looking to better understand students’ needs or concerns. Below are several key takeaways that might assist with mental health planning:
Following the publication of the survey, Mary Hoban, chief researcher for the ACHA, emphasized that many colleges had not yet properly implemented telehealth systems before the pandemic, and were scrambling to make mental health resources available quickly via an online platform when the data was collected in March and April, as per Inside Higher Education. Additionally, many college counseling centers struggled initially with state-level licensure issues that prohibit providing mental health services across state lines, but many of those regulations have been relaxed for the remainder of the public health emergency.
Either way, the survey results demonstrate a great need to both expand telehealth counseling services, and to raise awareness for on-campus services amid the pandemic. Plans for the following year vary - while 41% of college presidents reported being concerned about the mental health of their students amid the pandemic, only 35% of college presidents reported plans to expand mental health resources or availability for the duration.
Budget cuts brought on by the pandemic may further strain overtaxed counseling centers, but no matter what capacity a college or university has to bolster mental health response amid the pandemic, raising awareness about resources can be valuable. If students, faculty, and staff are aware of resources offered on campus, and given the tools necessary to seek care off-campus if possible, all community members can optimize available services.
A mass notification solution can facilitate communications around mental health resources amid the ever-changing situation around COVID-19. Administrators should notify students if in-service counseling will be made available, or about which telehealth platform will be used for the current moment. An integrated campus safety app can further facilitate mental health outreach on campus. Students can use the app to access a directory of resources, including counseling center contact information and availability.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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