The pandemic ripple effects on student success will last for years, including the long-term impact on student mental health. The stresses and loss of the pandemic profoundly impacted student well-being, while the social disruption and isolation altered their social development. Many are not doing well mentally or emotionally, and these big changes are readily apparent to faculty reporting ‘stunning’ levels of disconnection and disengagement in their courses.
Most higher education leaders are just beginning to realize the long-term impact these mental health concerns could have on enrollment and student success—and just how underprepared their institutions are to meet the challenge.
In this post, I’ll review the magnitude of the student mental health ripple effect and guidance on how to develop an effective strategy for responding to the crisis. There is good reason to believe this challenge will intensify as we move forward, and thus the time for action is now.
Why we need to be concerned
Mental health recovery has been slow. A spring 2022 College Pulse survey asked students when their mental health had been the strongest across the first two years of the pandemic. The low point in winter 2021 was followed by a gradual and steady improvement, yet just one-fourth of students said that they were feeling their best at the time of the survey. This gives us a strong signal that the elevated mental health challenges go far beyond COVID. The pandemic left a host of economic and sociopolitical tensions in its wake, and these factors continue to weigh on students.
When was your overall mental health the best?
College Pulse Survey, Spring 2022
Student well-being could be the top threat to student success. A Gallup survey in fall 2021 revealed that two-thirds of community college students and an eye-popping three-fourths of bachelor’s degree students had considered leaving school in the previous six months due to emotional stress. These responses doubled those of the prior year’s survey, and they far exceeded other common retention threats such as finances and academic difficulty.
We need to prepare for many more years of this. K-12 students are experiencing unprecedented levels of mental and emotional distress. School-based providers are becoming more common, yet they can’t keep up with surging demand, leaving many cases undiagnosed or untreated. We should anticipate that active treatment plans and unaddressed mental health concerns will become more common and potentially more severe across the next several incoming classes.
What we can do about it
Meeting this challenge requires a campus-wide mental health strategy, something that has traditionally been the domain of student affairs and centered on the counseling center. However, surging demand is outpacing clinical capacity, necessitating a new approach that extends care outside of a clinical setting by engaging the border campus community. There are two things you can do immediately to empower your community to better support students’ well-being:
1. Foster a campus culture that breaks down stigma and encourages help-seeking behavior
All of us can take an immediate role in normalizing mental health conversations around campus. Students already get a lot of value out of peer support groups, but there is more we can do. Everyone’s mental health took a downturn during the pandemic, and respected campus leaders can model open dialog by bravely sharing their own struggles in a public way, letting students know that they are not alone. Highly engaged community members can take an extra step and become mental health champions, while faculty may find ways to embed mental health discussions into their classrooms when it naturally aligns with their course content.
2. Equip key campus stakeholders, especially faculty, with tools to provide basic support
Most faculty and staff are not trained mental health providers, yet they often find themselves playing the role of first responders to students in distress. The pandemic brought a surge in these interactions, leaving faculty overwhelmed and exhausted. You can help them by providing quick access to simplified guidance on how to immediately respond to a student in distress. Make it clear and easy for stakeholders to escalate concerns that exceed their comfort zones. Encourage faculty to add information about mental health resources to their course syllabi.
We have five additional recommendations for senior leaders who oversee mental health strategy. These recommendations will help you take the next steps in expanding your capacity for care through a more comprehensive mental health strategy:
3. Expand your strategy to supplement individual counseling with less resource-intensive options
Labor market turnover has left some counseling centers without the human capital to keep up with demand. Fortunately, many mental health issues can be addressed in ways that don’t require regular 1:1 counseling. Use a stepped care framework to organized existing mental health and well-being support into escalating layers that connect students to the degree and type of care they need, while reserving individual counseling center appointments for the most acute issues. Technology can help students make these connections for themselves. Stepped care frameworks are also useful for promoting preventative measures and for understanding when student needs exceed your scope of service and need to be referred off campus.
4. Reevaluate your mental health offerings through a DEIJ lens
BIPOC students often struggle to find mental health providers who understand their identities and struggles, leading to lower rates of engagement. Many of these students hail from families and communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and its associated social stressors. Make it a priority to ensure that providers have the training to work with a diversity of student backgrounds, and whenever possible hire staff who reflect the demographics of your student body.
5. Know the return on your mental health investments
Mental help support is resource intensive by nature and may become harder to fund if institutional budgets tighten during the post-pandemic economy. In this environment, the stakes are too high not to understand the full impact that your mental health investments are having on advancing strategic priorities such as persistence, academic success, and belonging. Some of these gains may even be quantifiable in terms of enrollment dollars retained. Analyze your impact so that you can make the case for what works when it comes time for securing additional buy-in and investment for your most successful initiatives.
6. Make mental health a fundraising priority
Mental health initiatives can make compelling fundraising pitches, especially as the public becomes more aware of how deeply students have been affected by the pandemic. Philanthropy can provide a huge boost when launching or expanding resource-intensive mental health services. Yet, a recent EAB partner collaborative revealed that just half of campus mental health leaders were prepared to make a pitch, and nearly a quarter had never had a conversation with their advancement teams about opportunities.
7. Consider hiring a dedicated leader to manage your cross-institution mental health strategy
Mental health strategy has traditionally been the exclusive domain of the student affairs division, but the stressors of the pandemic and the ensuing impact on students now demand a campus-wide effort. You may find this requires a Chief Wellness Officer who can reach across institutional silos to engage faculty and other critical stakeholders.
Mental health needs to be a student success priority
The pandemic turned a growing problem into an urgent crisis that could soon have a major impact on college completion, not to mention students’ lives and well-being. This problem will not go away on its own.
Surging demand requires a new approach to mental health strategy that engages the entire campus community in supporting students’ well-being. Fortunately, the steps necessary to get started are straightforward and well within the reach of nearly every institution. Many of the recommendations included in this article can be acted on immediately. We don’t have time to waste, as there is good reason to believe demand for mental health services will continue to rise with future incoming classes.
There is far more to learn about campus mental health opportunities. We encourage you to visit our Mental Health Resource Center to access a wealth of research and insights. This material is open and available free of charge. Please consider sharing the link and this post with others in your professional circle, as a strong mental health strategy needs to be a team effort.
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Explore EAB's resources to support student mental health and well-being.