3 things the COVID-19 pandemic revealed about campus mental health

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3 things the COVID-19 pandemic revealed about campus mental health

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2020 rang in a new era that no one was expecting. COVID-19 and the long-overdue racial reckoning in the U.S. have had ripple effects in almost every facet of our daily lives—resulting in unprecedented and expedient change. These challenges brought mental health to the top of university priority lists and shifted how leaders approach campus well-being.

My EAB colleagues and I spent much of this year speaking with leaders to understand how campus well-being strategy has evolved since the start of the pandemic. Here are three critical realizations that sparked a transformation in the way campus leaders are approaching well-being.

1. Our institutions have under-invested in preventative support and education

COVID-19 uncovered crucial gaps in campus mental health strategy. Prior to the pandemic, higher education was grappling with rapidly escalating demand for mental health support. As a result, colleges and universities made significant investments in the counseling center. But in March 2020, as students left campus amid great uncertainty and stress, institutions scrambled to ensure students had what they needed to support their well-being from home.

This process illuminated that across the last decade, college and university leaders have under-invested in preventative resources and health promotion. One-on-one, in-person support through the counseling center will always be a priority, but COVID-19 brought greater attention to the importance and potential of preventative mental health and well-being support. Through preventative support and education, we can intervene earlier and prevent some students from reaching a point of crisis.

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There will be many pressing priorities in the months ahead, but it is imperative leaders continue to invest in proactive well-being support and education to address student mental health coming out of the pandemic.

2. We have overlooked staff and faculty well-being

Student mental health has been a priority for years—but faculty and staff were rarely a major focus, partially due to the siloed nature of our colleges and universities. However, COVID-19 understandably sparked new conversations and concerns about faculty and staff well-being, particularly among campus leaders; according to Inside Higher Ed’s 2021 survey of Presidents, 94% of college and university presidents are concerned about the mental health of employees as a result of COVID-19.

It is no surprise leaders are concerned. In one survey, 40% of faculty said they have considered leaving their positions because of COVID-19-driven stress. Supporting faculty and staff well-being is crucial to staff retention and student success.

  • 0%

of college and university presidents are concerned about the mental health of employees as a result of COVID-19

  • 0%

of faculty said they have considered leaving their positions because of COVID-19-driven stress

As institutions ‘return to a new normal’, it will be key to employee retention and engagement that leaders recognize the impact this tumultuous year has had on faculty and staff well-being, and take initiative to support their well-being.

3. Our in-person models created barriers to well-being, even before the pandemic

Prior to the pandemic, most well-being efforts were centered around an in-person counseling model. Through the pandemic, campus leaders had to swiftly innovate to ensure access to care was maintained and student mental health was supported across virtual formats. The many benefits of virtual well-being support became increasingly visible on a mass scale through COVID-19.

Among the prominent changes made to campus mental health care, we have diversified the ways students can access support, added new service offerings, and promoted existing resources in new ways. These advances have prompted an important realization: due to stigma, inconvenience, or busy schedules, in-person models can face significant barriers to care access, especially for marginalized student groups. Operating in a virtual environment created new support options for students who might not have had access to the help they needed before.

"We’ve invested millions in mental health infrastructure all to respond to mental health concerns, but we are still under resourced with no end in sight. The way we respond to mental health has got to be completely different. We cannot afford to not think outside of the box.”

Frank Shushok

VPSA, Virginia Tech

While in-person care will always be essential, institutions should maintain a hybrid model to retain and build on the newly-found benefits of a more flexible and accessible mental health support strategy.

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