If student wellness wasn’t top of the agenda pre-coronavirus, then it certainly seems to be now. Lockdown and the subsequent move to entirely remote learning have exacerbated an issue that was already on the academic radar: the social and emotional well-being of university students.
As a result, many institutions are taking this moment as an opportunity to launch new initiatives aimed at promoting good mental health. It’s a very real concern: recent studies all over the world are united in revealing huge problems in the area of student wellness. For example, some suggest that as many as 84.6% of students have suffered mental health issues during the pandemic.
Although most countries are seeing a return to some semblance of normality thanks to the lifting of strict quarantine measures, the long-term psychosocial impact of this experience remains unknown.
Why might students struggle with mental health issues?
Even without COVID-19 in the picture, universities are still sites of potential mental health struggles. Many factors contribute to students experiencing difficulties in this particular environment.
Academic pressure is perhaps the most obvious of them. Higher education is very different from the school experience, and students are expected to demonstrate much more agency than before. This requires the ability to juggle deadlines, stay on top of multiple classes and manage time effectively. Sometimes, students can become overwhelmed by the demands of their course.
Another contributing factor could be if a student has moved away from home to study. The transition can be tough when you’re used to having your support network around you. Adjusting to a new environment and the new responsibilities that need to be undertaken when living away from home can be very challenging for students.
One such responsibility is the management of finances. Students who struggle financially may find their mental health suffers as a result. A 2017 survey by Save the Student discovered that half of the students they spoke to suffered adverse mental health effects as a result of concerns about cash flow.
Low-income students are also more likely to have additional responsibilities, such as part-time employment, on their minds. The stress involved in trying to make ends meet while simultaneously studying a demanding course could understandably prove too much to bear.
Another pressure relates to social life. The popular conception of higher education as a time for perpetual partying and forging lifelong friendships isn’t true for everyone. In fact, unrealistic portrayals of student life may lead many students to question themselves when their experience differs.
Social isolation on campus can result in self-esteem issues, depression, poor sleep quality, and impaired executive function. Since most students have spent time during the pandemic in forced social isolation, this should be an area of focus for higher education institutions right now.
Why should universities care about social and emotional health?
Ethically, universities should be invested in their students’ social and emotional health because they have a duty of care towards them.
Although students are adults, many of them are young adults, and they could carry other characteristics that make them vulnerable to poor mental health. For example, they may be disabled, part of the LGBT community, or from a low socioeconomic background.
There are also economic motivations for educational institutions to promote social and emotional health. Most universities suffered from a loss of revenue during the pandemic, so it’s in their best interest to retain as much of their student population as possible in its aftermath.
If students suffer from impaired executive function, the healthy challenge that university education should represent could become insurmountable. When that happens, it results in increased dropouts.
What could universities do?
Universities can support the social and emotional health of their students in a range of ways:
By increasing awareness
Universities are designed to educate, so they could also educate students about their mental health. Awareness campaigns can help students identify early signs of struggle and ensure they know where to seek help during periods of difficulty. Campaigns can also destigmatize poor mental health so that students feel more comfortable talking about their experiences. This can reduce feelings of loneliness.
By performing mental health screening
Regularly scheduled mental health check-ins can help universities identify students who need additional support. Shifting from a system that puts the onus on struggling students to self-identify and seek help normalizes the idea that all of us may suffer from poor mental health at some point. Using this approach, mental health screening could become as commonplace as attending a physical at the doctor’s office!
By offering campus-wide courses
Universities often offer complementary elective courses, so why couldn’t they provide classes in social and emotional health? These could be designed around coping strategies such as mindful meditation, or they could provide more general information about improving students’ sense of well-being.
By employing dedicated mental health staff
One practical way that universities can support their students’ social and emotional health is by providing counselors on campus. Bearing in mind that waiting lists for state mental health services are often long and private services can be prohibitively expensive, the provision of dedicated counselors could make mental health support much more accessible.
By providing financial support for low-income students
Since it has been proven that students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to suffer from poor mental health as they study, universities could provide additional funding to ease their financial concerns. Grants that cover living costs can free these students up to focus on their course.
By utilizing edtech
Mental health is still subject to substantial stigma, which means some students are reluctant to reach out when they’re suffering. During COVID-19, universities used technology to create communication channels. The same technology could now be used to provide online emotional support to students who aren’t ready for a face-to-face meeting.
By reinforcing peer networks
Knowing that social isolation is a contributing factor, universities can take preventative steps for poor mental health by helping students build relationships with one another. This might look like sober social groups, a schedule of free fitness classes, or volunteer work opportunities that require peer collaboration.