Safety Net.” Credit: /\ \/\/ /\

With students facing rising mental health challenges amid the pandemic, college and university administrators across the United States are putting in place new programs for the “unmotivated, anxious, stressed, and isolated” students upon whom the pandemic’s distancing and isolation has taken its toll.

Compounded by a shaky job market and a country on edge after last month’s insurrection at the Capitol students face unprecedented challenges coming of age in the time of COVID-19, online learning, and social distancing. The power of in-person courses and networks to help bridge gaps in income and social capital has been lost.

Michelle Macario of California’s Santa Monica College, which is offering its classes only online, explains to the New York Times how, lacking a laptop or Wi-Fi access, she dropped all her courses during the spring semester rather than risk failing. She was back in school this fall, but must rely on a smartphone for remote learning.

“Between the internet, COVID, and couch surfing, I haven’t been able to do a good semester,” Macario says.

Dylan Arkowitz, a Georgetown University first-year student, tells The Hoya of his disappointment in attending his first semester of college online, having also missed out on senior prom and graduation. “It feels weird losing two things in completely different spheres. It’s a major transition period for us, and we lost both. We lost the ending and the beginning,” says Arkowitz.

Experiencing a spectrum of new challenges, students across the country show “decreased focus and engagement,” according to a survey by Hanover Research and the education tech company Starfish by Hobsons. Of a sample of more than 1,000 US college students during the fall semester, more than two-thirds said COVID-19 “negatively impacted their mental state,” yet only 23 percent reached out for mental health services. When students struggle with well-being, they’re “most likely to turn to faculty and advisors for help.” Starfish proposes the development of “a support ecosystem surrounding each student,” with faculty prepared with resources alongside student services and student affairs staff.

The pandemic has intensified issues that were already on the rise, ranging from student anxiety to psychosomatic problems to suicidality. However, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) at Penn State shows requests to college counseling centers remained consistent in the 2018–2019 and 2019–20 school years, with decreasing numbers in Spring 2020. Numbers at Auburn University and University of Iowa followed a similar pattern.

Overall, administrator attention to mental health resources has increased over the past decade and has seen a substantial rise over the past year. According to a survey by the American Council on Education (ACE), the pandemic has led approximately 70 percent of college and university presidents to identity student mental health as a major priority—an increase of 17 percentage points from the prior year.

“Before COVID, students were already struggling with anxiety, depression and loneliness and that has only been exacerbated,” said Varun Soni, vice provost for campus wellness and crisis intervention at the University of Southern California on PBS NewsHour. “I think all universities are concerned about what’s happening in home environments, abroad, because we’re not as connected as we used to be.”

In addressing mental health issues, accessibility and engagement are hurdles colleges and universities are seeking to overcome in new ways. Institutions like Johns Hopkins University and the University of Notre Dame have tapped telehealth provider TimelyMD, which supports virtual medical and mental health care. According to Dallas Innovates, the company is “serving ten times the number of students it was before the pandemic.” Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota has built out wraparound services while providing students with emergency funds, expanding the schedule of the campus food pantry, and bringing support animals to campus.

“In addition to counseling, which we’ve ramped up a lot and have changed—surprise, 18- to 22-year-olds don’t work on bankers’ hours—we have really looked at the wraparound support for students,” said Joan Gabel, president of the University of Minnesota, to University Business. “What are we doing in the classroom so it’s robust but not aggravating the problem? What are we providing in wellness? Are we providing research to the overall cause? Are we giving faculty and staff resources so they can be allies and so they themselves stay healthy? We have made resources available to the scholarly side of the house to engage in early detection and offer appropriate.”

The University of Missouri in Columbia has embedded a psychologist within its college of veterinary medicine to tailor programs to student needs, while the City University of New York (CUNY) announced plans in October to build out its current mental health resources through a $5 million expansion funded with federal CARES Act allocations. CUNY will connect students with increased opportunities for face-to-face online counseling and accessible services, including training 120 campus clinical counselors in teletherapy.

Mental health services are just one example of how higher education administrators are seeking to retool supports and services traditionally found on campus. It’s not only a question of how to manage the pandemic and avoid “becom(ing) superspreaders for neighboring communities” but rebuilding institutions to better attend to students’ needs, now and in the future.—Nicole Zerillo