Virtual counseling groups, online red folders, and student reflection pieces: Supporting college student mental health during COVID-19

Expert Insight

Virtual counseling groups, online red folders, and student reflection pieces: Supporting college student mental health during COVID-19

Across the last six weeks, college students have seen their lives upended with their time on campus abruptly cut short as institutions responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. As they continue remote emergency instruction from their bedrooms, couches, and kitchen tables, many students are going online to share their experiences and start to process what has occurred. 

Recent analysis from Campus Sonar looking at “publicly available online conversation in the U.S. and on Reddit and YouTube (which span beyond the U.S.) about the coronavirus and higher education” highlights both the anger and sadness many students are currently feeling. At the same time, there continues to be great uncertainty about what the Fall might look like at colleges and universities, which only increases students’ anxiety. As a result, it is more important than ever for institutions to support student mental health. Below are several examples of how colleges and universities are helping students during this challenging time. 

1. Ensuring faculty and staff can easily make referrals by updating red folders for the virtual environment

At the start of their recent quarter, Stanford University released a host of virtual wellbeing resources to help support students, faculty, and staff. One noteworthy resource included in the new online hub was an updated version of the institution’s red folder, which is now designed to help faculty and staff support student wellbeing in a virtual environment. The folder highlights challenges students might be struggling with right now due to COVID-19 including academic-related infrastructure deficits at home, living environments that might not be supportive of all their identities, and heightened financial difficulties. The folder also provides guidance on how faculty and staff can respond, signs of distress, and referral resources. 

2. Creating just in time virtual support groups for vulnerable student segments

Smith College recently launched several new virtual counseling groups that meet on a weekly basis. These groups provide support to Trans and GNC (gender non-conforming) students, individuals still living on campus, and students of color. There are also several groups focused on specific topics such as grief support, overcoming social isolation, an ADHD motivational group, and a “creative coping” with creative writing group. The groups meet on a weekly basis and are facilitated by a member of the counseling center. 

3. Proactively raising awareness of current resources via social media channels

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) uses weekly posts and the custom hashtag #RPIMentalHealthMondays to raise awareness of resources for student mental health and wellness on Instagram and Twitter. Their posts spotlight tips such as finding sources of positivity or meditation resources. The campaign also encourages students to take care of their emotional health, spotlights peers sharing their experiences with COVID-19, and reminds them that university counselors are available to talk

4. Providing a space for students to reflect on their experiences

Recognizing that students are experiencing the current pandemic in many different ways, Western University in Canada created Thrive Online, “a space for Western students to tell your own stories in your own words.”  Students are invited to contribute their reflections and experiences during this time to the site via blogs. Recent entries include an excellent piece from a senior about what it is like to be graduating during COVID-19 and a blog from another student reflecting on why intermural sports and winning the coveted purple shirt as league champions as been one of his best college experiences. 

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