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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, college students were struggling year over year with increased anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. And now the pandemic has affected them in especially challenging ways. Data from the Centers for Disease Control, Active Minds and the American College Health Association and the Healthy Minds Study have demonstrated that young adult mental health has continued to suffer and may even be worsening during the pandemic.

In particular, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and low-income students are dealing with tremendous stressors. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted BIPOC students and their families. Students of color, especially Black students, have also been affected by the upheaval and reckoning for racial justice. Needing to return to nonaffirming home environments and/or losing positive social connections has been challenging for some LGBTQ+ students. And many low-income students are dealing with lack of access to basic needs, like housing, health care, food, jobs and reliable internet.

Yet despite increased mental health distress, students’ use of campus-based mental health resources has reportedly declined nationwide, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. Also troubling is a new survey by Mental Health America, in which 70 percent of students who needed mental health disability accommodations reported not receiving them. Only 20 percent of those students said that it was because they did not want accommodations.

According to a recent Active Minds focus group, students suggested that many factors could be driving the decrease in campus service utilization. Those factors included, among others: 1) a preference for off-campus services during this time, 2) a lack of privacy when doing virtual therapy from home, 3) complex interstate teletherapy licensure issues, 4) exhaustion that makes it difficult to reach out, 5) beliefs about the efficacy of counseling when so much in the world is going wrong and 6) a feeling of disconnection with college/university services over all while learning from home or in a hybrid model.

The potential barriers are many, but college and university leaders can take some proven steps to ensure that students are fully supported through this time.

Involve students. Uncertainty about what to do and how to support and empower students can always begin with a simple first step: ask students. Research also shows that student involvement increases awareness and usage of campus health services. Stronger campus communities happen when students are engaged in the mental health policy decisions and programs that affect them. Such efforts must encompass students across campus communities and identities, including students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students and students of color.

Inform decision making through assessments. Campus leaders should establish or update their plan to assess the mental health of their students, staff and faculty populations. As soon as possible and on an ongoing, scheduled basis, they should collect survey data on their own or through participation in national studies like the Healthy Minds Study and the National College Health Assessment to understand immediate needs and changes over time. The plan for data collection should outline how the data will be shared and used to inform the campus’ continuing efforts to support mental health and crisis recovery.

Engage faculty and other campus first responders. Particularly within hybrid or full-on remote learning models, students are dependent on faculty members as mental health first responders and as key facilitators of students’ sense of belonging and connection to the college or university.

Faculty members can integrate practices and expectations that promote well-being, such as building in opportunities for reflection and processing of the pandemic and current events, and they can normalize the use of mental health resources. That includes making sure that other staff, like advisers or those working in disability support services, are reaching out to students and offering resources for those who may need additional support.

Build on the optimism and resilience that students demonstrate. Active Minds’ survey also showed that 78 percent of students feel optimistic about their future, and two-thirds of students reported an increase in supporting others with their mental wellness. What could it look like to harness students’ strengths and treat them as equal partners in developing solutions to today’s challenges? Many institutions have already begun this work by creating student advisory councils, taking a data-driven approach using student surveys, and ensuring diverse representation and perspectives of students when seeking their input. Institutions can also empower students to create solutions that build upon their desire to support one another by promoting the expansion of peer support programs like the Support Network and Project LETS and digital solutions like Runaway App and Lean On Me.

If we truly prioritize learning and inclusivity in our communities, we have an obligation to take care of one another’s well-being and access to learning. Colleges and universities must support students’ mental health and academic success by working with them to adapt resources in this changing environment -- whether that means reducing barriers to accommodations or rethinking how mental health information is shared and mental health supports are offered.

Now more than ever, leaders must partner with students to learn from them and alter resources and courses to meet their needs.

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