Supporting The Mental Health of College Students During The Pandemic And Beyond


Last year, I wrote about the mental health crisis confronting America’s college and university students. Students are lonely and anxious, I noted then, and according to one major study more than 75 percent of college students said they needed help for emotional and mental health problems.

Then the pandemic happened.

Students’ lives were disrupted as classes moved remote, residence halls shut down, and in some cases family members got sick, lost jobs, or even lost their lives. We faced a national reckoning about systemic racism. School is back in session now, but in a drastically changed world. And problems of student mental health have only increased.

A Boston University study last month found that depression symptoms have tripled among American adults, including college students. Now, 27.8 percent of American adults display symptoms of depression, the study found, compared to 8.5 percent prior to the pandemic. And students face special challenges. Some learning from home with their families struggle to find appropriate environments in which to do remote schoolwork or even adequate technology with which to access classes. Some worry about the ability to pay for college in tougher economic circumstances. Nearly all are missing out on some of the important social and development aspects of college, and they’re worried about the world—and the employment landscape—they’ll graduate into.

The important question is what educators—and parents—can do to support these struggling students.

And the answer is straightforward. We need to be aware, we need to be accepting, and we need to be supportive. We need to recognize that the mental health and wellbeing of young adults will be an ongoing challenge—one that isn’t new to the pandemic, but one the pandemic has exacerbated—and we need to talk about these issues, acknowledge them, and destigmatize them. It is up to all of us to help students get the support they need, and it is up to government, corporations, and foundations to fund those important resources. Bolstering the mental health of young adults is crucial to their success in college and to the productivity of our future workforce.

I’ve recently been involved with two task forces whose work supports this.

At Pace University, we recently convened a group charged with looking at the services, programs, and resources available to our students and finding ways to improve them. It reported its findings over the summer, and the top recommendation was that the best way to encourage greater mental health and wellbeing among our students is to build a culture of mental health and wellbeing.

Just as with physical health, we’re all better off when we take care of ourselves on an ongoing basis rather than deal with problems only when they reach a crisis. As the task force reported, that means making counseling services available on an ongoing and easily accessible basis. It means helping students to build their resilience, so they know how to manage problems and challenges rather than letting them fester. It means encouraging the ongoing work to support mental health and wellbeing, like eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising. It means that supporting mental health and wellbeing is something we all must work on proactively, not simply expect as a baseline. And it means that everyone in our University community—faculty, staff, student leaders—should be trained on mental health best practices and available resources, so that we all can support students who need help.

In developing its recommendations, the Pace task force relied in part on the work of The Steve Fund, an admirable organization focused on supporting mental health and wellbeing for young people of color. The Steve Fund had simultaneously charged its own task force to find recommendations mitigating the mental health impact of the pandemic and the associated economic and social upheavals on students of color. I was part of that group, and we delivered our report last month.

The Steve Fund task force also found that a holistic, inclusive approach will work best. We recommended a collaborative approach to promoting mental health for students of color: including faculty and staff in efforts supporting student mental health, leveraging community and external resources to promote student mental health, and integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion staff with student affairs leaders and counseling centers. We emphasized the importance of understanding and demonstrating empathy toward the injustices and inequities often experienced by students of color and acknowledging the trauma experienced by young people of color when they see or experience violence against Black and Brown communities.

The Steve Fund work wasn’t limited to college students; we also examined how to help support young people of color as they enter the workforce. Our findings, though, were similar. Open discussion matters, as does a holistic approach to supporting mental health. We need to support young people of color on their transition into the workplace, integrate mental health support into workplace operations, and understand the relationship between racial trauma and wellbeing in the workplace. We need look at workplace cultures and practices with a 2020 lens, and we need to ensure young employees of color have allies, mentors, and opportunities for advancement. Once again, we all need to do the work to support the wellbeing of these young people.

The takeaway is consistent: We all need to be a part of supporting mental health and wellbeing among young people. We can’t silo this work, and, especially in this challenging time, we certainly can’t ignore it. We all need to look out for our students, be aware of the particular challenges they might be facing and be ready to direct them to the professional resources they need.

Let’s meet our students where they are, and let’s all work together to support their mental health and wellbeing.

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