Addressing Student Mental Health During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Addressing Student Mental Health During The COVID-19 Pandemic

The topic of student mental health has been a continually growing concern in recent years. Suicide rates amongst young adults have remained on a steady rise, and suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst young adults ages 15-24, according to The Suicide Prevention Resource Center. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, student mental health concerns are exacerbated immensely. A survey from Active Minds in April found 91% of college-aged survey participants reporting that the pandemic has added “greater stress or anxiety to their lives,” while 81% of participants said that the pandemic has caused “disappointment and sadness” in their lives.

A Growing Concern

Mental health resources in education were strained even before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. 

COVID-19 has not only reduced the amount of resources schools can provide but has also significantly increased the demand. As schools begin the new academic year, many have already seen this increase in demand for mental health services. Michigan State University, which has moved to all-remote instruction, saw a 32% increase in students asking for mental health services over the summer, highlighted in an article from NBC News

It will be extraordinarily important to have a plan in place or have appropriate modifications for programs already in place to help students in need.

COVID-19’s Effect

According to a report from the state of Pennsylvania’s Safe2Say program, reports of suicide or suicidal thoughts among Pennsylvania K-12 students rose by 18% in the 2019-2020 school year compared to the previous year. The number of reports regarding suicide or self-harm more than doubled when schools closed their doors in March.

Higher education institutions are also monitoring concerning trends during the pandemic. A recent article from Inside Higher Ed highlighted a June study from the CDC, showing that 25.5% of surveyed college-aged adults have seriously considered suicide as a result of COVID-19. In the same survey, one in four college-aged respondents also reported increased substance abuse as a result of the pandemic. 

There are several reasons behind these trends coinciding with the pandemic. One of these issues is cyberbullying. Cyberbullying opportunities increase as more turn to online platforms for school. A recent article from Panda Security highlights a 70% increase in cyberbullying between March and April when lockdowns were at their peak.

Additionally, with the world working and learning remotely and many out of work entirely as a result of COVID-19, violence in the home has become an increased area of concern. In many jurisdictions, child abuse cases are on the rise as a result of the pandemic. In a remote learning environment, it may be significantly more difficult for students to reach out in the event of violence and abuse.

While students may have resources to cope with trauma on their physical campuses, a remote learning or socially-distanced environment may limit access for many.

Help To Heal

With many institutions preparing for a return to remote learning, the lack of in-person counseling and resources presents a unique and difficult challenge.

An article from Inside Higher Ed highlights some basic rules colleges can work to achieve in the new school year.

  • Support the development of life skills: Have all staff work to let students know that they are not alone as we all adapt to the “new normal.” It will be important to be there to help provide guidance and mentorship. Faculty members can establish virtual “drop-ins” during the week to allow students the opportunity to discuss concerns with coursework, academic challenges or other anxieties. 
  • Promote social connectedness: Even if students aren’t with their peers physically, they can still nurture relationships virtually. Schools can encourage students to interact with their classmates virtually by establishing online study groups, virtual meetings with clubs or other extracurricular groups, and school-sponsored virtual social events.
  • Identify at-risk students: Perhaps one of the most critical topics to remain vigilant on is identifying the warning signs of a student who may be suffering mental health problems or contemplating suicide. Staff should work to actively listen to students and try to identify three essential pieces of information; what the student is saying, the emotions they are feeling and their behaviors in response to those feelings.

Even under normal circumstances, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to identifying and addressing mental health issues. These three basic rules are not an all-inclusive list of what to do but provide a good set of principles for institutions to emphasize.

What Others Are Doing

Many institutions have already begun laying out plans to address this difficult topic in the new school year. Whether your institution is preparing to resume in-person operations or is continuing with a remote learning environment, there are several initiatives schools around the country have established to address the topic of mental health that may be useful at your institution. 

  • Many schools, like Northwestern University, have implemented COVID-19 specific tabs on their student counseling sites. Last year, the school also implemented a phone number students can utilize when suffering from mental health issues that will immediately connect them to a mental health professional. While this measure wasn’t in direct response to the pandemic, it is something to consider in a remote environment.
  • KIPP Charter Schools in New Jersey are providing teachers with training in the areas of suicide prevention, grief counseling and how to spot signs of distress. The schools will also host an online wellness space in which students can listen to music, fill online coloring books and practice yoga on a virtual learning platform.
  • The Dallas Independent School District hired 50 new clinicians to help counsel students in need.
  • Most athletic programs have seen their sports seasons postponed or canceled entirely as a result of the pandemic. After their athletic conference postponed their season, the University of Buffalo’s football program continued to offer athletes access to mental health counseling. The school will also provide outreach efforts, including forums for athletes and coaches.

Additionally, the George Washington University Center for Health and Health Care has provided a list of resources for schools in response to COVID-19, which includes several pieces on mental health from sources such as the World Health Organization and the CDC.

We’re Here to Help

We understand that every institution’s situation is different in regards to mental health, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Talk to your trusted RCM&D advisor today for more on reducing the risks of mental health problems at your institution and to ensure that your insurance program is designed to respond to claims stemming from both on-campus services as well as telehealth and telecounseling.