The pandemic is wreaking havoc on campus mental health—here’s what you can do to help

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The pandemic is wreaking havoc on campus mental health—here’s what you can do to help

I’ve been involved with and helped lead EAB’s mental health employee resource group, Healthy Minds, since I started working here five years ago. Through my work facilitating conversations about mental health at work, I’ve learned that even in the best of times, many people struggle with mental health. And these are definitely not the best of times.

Supporting mental health on campus has been a priority for many forward-thinking higher ed leaders in recent years. And the physical, emotional, and financial concerns of the pandemic have only exacerbated the urgency higher ed leaders feel to prioritize mental health. A recent study from the CDC showed that over a quarter of traditionally college-aged adults (18-24) reported experiencing serious suicidal ideation in the past 30 days. And it’s not just students—your staff are likely experiencing the same fear, anxiety, and isolation.

In the face of long-term stress and uncertainty, what can higher ed leaders do to support their staff and students?

Supporting your staff members

42%

of employees reported that their mental health has declined since the start of the pandemic
of employees reported that their mental health has declined since the start of the pandemic

The moral imperative for supporting employee mental health is clear—good leaders care about their team’s wellbeing. And poor employee mental health can impact the bottom line: the World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety cost the US economy $1 trillion dollars in revenue each year due to lost productivity, and higher ed is not exempt from these statistics.

That figure is pre-pandemic—the impact of mental health challenges is likely to be outsized this year. An international Qualtrics study found that nearly 42% of employees reported that their mental health has declined since the start of the pandemic. It’s essential to plan around heightened stress levels and shifting circumstances while maintaining necessary levels of productivity.

Here are four steps you can take to make sure you are fully supporting your team:

  1. Assess priorities: As you plan for continued virtual or hybrid learning, look at your team’s current work plans and consider what can be adjusted and what absolutely must be prioritized. What is essential? How would you label each priority? Does your team know what you’ve prioritized and how you’re supporting them through those tasks?
  2. Assess goals: Consider how you’ve changed your staff’s performance goals since the pandemic started. Does anything else need to be changed given current, and potentially long-term, circumstances?
  3. Assess stress levels: Micromanaging your team may reduce your stress but will have long-term detrimental impacts to your team’s productivity and health. Ask staff what their current version of success looks like and think through how that aligns with what you need to accomplish versus what you may want to accomplish.
  4. Assess accountability: Set up virtual “co-working” sessions for staff to join for an hour at a time (on mute!). Add an accountability measure by having staff share their goals for the session at the beginning and reporting on their progress at the end.

As you consider your approach to staff coaching and management going forward, make sure you’re leading with empathy and present as a listener, supporter, and advocate for mental health. While higher ed leaders shouldn’t be expected to replace mental health providers, you can still do your best to ensure that all your direct reports feel comfortable bringing their full selves to work.

Supporting your students

While completing my master’s in forensic psychology at Marymount University, I worked with my school’s Student Affairs office to standardize their crisis response and suicide prevention training for all Residence Life staff. I learned firsthand the impact that well-intentioned, well-informed, and well-trained staff can have in safeguarding student mental health.

Recent studies suggest, alarmingly but perhaps not surprisingly, that 60% of college students who sought mental health support have found it more difficult to access these services since the start of the pandemic. The majority of students also report that their college’s administration and faculty have been supportive of their well-being in this trying time. The cause of this discrepancy? In all likelihood, your staff don’t have the processes and resources in place to identify students struggling with mental health and connect them to support in a virtual environment.

Just like you approach staff support with a sense of empathy, ensure you’re flexible and empathetic when communicating with students. Consider the different needs students are experiencing and adjust your response accordingly:

Student Needs

Physiological Needs:
• Nutrition (obtaining food or preparing meals)
• Personal health (both mental and physical)
• Maintaining adequate housing and sufficient sleep
• Balance in necessary daily life roles and activities

Psychosocial Needs:
• Feeling of academic adequacy
• Sense of love and belonging
• A sense of basic safety and security

Academic Needs:
• Motivation to persist in studies
• Financial security for tuition and other expenses
• Access to online learning essentials

Key Questions to Consider

To turn empathy and intention into action, your staff need the tools to identify struggling students and get them the help they need. Student-facing polls, like the Quick Polls in Navigate, EAB’s student success management system, allow your advising teams to find the students struggling with various needs and share that list with relevant campus support offices easily. By reaching out directly to students and giving them an easy way to share their concerns and opt into additional help, you remove the burden of requiring students to proactively raise their hands.

We can only begin to imagine the long-term effects this pandemic will have on the mental health of our staff and the students we serve. But there is nothing preventing us from acting now to identify, support, and ensure the success of our vulnerable populations today. The best thing we can do now is audit our current offerings and build clear practices, policies, and systems to support the people that play critical roles in student success, including and especially students themselves.

More mental health resources

Student well-being is inextricably linked to student success, meaning holistic mental health and well-being support should be a top priority for every institution. Explore this Roadmap for guidance on how to develop student-centered well-being support.

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