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“I walk around with a constant heaviness. The headaches, sleepiness, anxiety … I don’t know what to do about them or if they will go away.”
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently issued a new report to highlight the need to address a mental health crisis among the nation’s youth, adolescents and young adults. Murthy’s advisory is an urgent call for a coordinated and holistic response to this crisis. The emotional and mental health of college students across the country—and the world—is at a crisis level, and this situation is hurting students’ ability to self-regulate, learn and thrive. Consider the previous undergraduate student’s comment and the following one, made in a focus group about how colleges can better help students cope with the anxiety of the current moment:
“Prior to the pandemic, I was a good student in the sense that I got all my work done on time and was super passionate about learning. Then I went home [when the pandemic hit] and tried to continue my work. It was horrible … like all the missing assignments and lack of motivation and staring blankly at my work. I was trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. Did I lose my cognitive function? So I was like, maybe this is the real me, maybe I’m actually really unmotivated and lazy and maybe I was never a good student. I felt lonely and embarrassed and scared.”
Such sentiments reflect how many students have felt over the past 21 months. Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, colleges and universities across the nation recognized this mental health crisis and began to offer trauma-informed teaching and learning webinars for their faculty in order to help them support their students’ well-being and learning. Given the global statistics on the prevalence of toxic stress in college students before the pandemic, those workshops were long overdue.
Yet even today, if such workshops are offered at all in higher education, they are typically one-off, providing a piecemeal approach to addressing what is a burgeoning systemic issue. While those efforts are a move in the right direction, they are merely reactive. Moreover, remedies are limited by virtue of the amount of information that can be shared with faculty who are then asked to work with students, and they rely upon faculty members who are themselves often overwhelmed and may be experiencing burnout.
Given the limits of current interventions, how can we educate students about toxic stress and the lasting effects of the pandemic and ameliorate how these experiences will impact learning? How can higher education transform this anguished moment in order to have a future that is kinder, more humane and more equitable—one that empowers all students to learn and thrive?
In this essay, we present a set of five recommendations for departments and institutions, each with suggestions for enacting them.
1. Give students a basic education about neurophysiology. First, higher education must help students understand how learning works and why emotions are integral to their learning. Institutions currently have made few, if any, organized or systematic efforts to educate students about how their own physiology impacts their learning and success. Most first-year student orientations cover academic support, study skills, time management, important deadlines and academic logistics. But basic information about physiology, the neurobiology of learning and emotional and mental health is, at best, given cursory attention if covered at all.
Thus, we recommend that during student orientations, institutions hold a session specifically to impart upon students the following key ideas. First, learning is complex and multifaceted yet still possible for all students. Second, stress, which impacts emotions, is an undeniable fact of life, so rather than masking our emotions—which is what students are often taught or expected to do—students should be aware of them and learn to regulate them. Third, learning about and cultivating self-compassion enhances the learning experience even when one fails. Fourth, students must maintain their mental health with equal or even more commitment as they do their physical health. We also suggest:
- Invite students to offer brief testimonies to highlight how they negotiate or cope with stress. When students hear from each other the different ways they are recognizing and dealing with stress, they will learn from it. An institution could send weekly video messages from various students describing how they have leveraged the power of emotions to learn or how listening to their body has helped them manage their stress.
- Hold regular public symposia where students’ family and friends are invited to learn about the complexity of learning and how toxic stress can impact learning. Many students may experience stress or pressure from home, so inviting parents or other family members to such a discussion may give them more perspective on what students are going through.
- Work with the student government to organize town hall meetings to learn from students and see that their struggles are not one-size-fits-all. Students come from different backgrounds, and although this is a time of collective turmoil and pains, they don’t all experience them the same way. Many things beyond biological reactions can impact students’ learning, including social, cultural, psychological and environmental factors. Hearing directly from students will not only make them feel that their voice matters but also help the college community recognize how many factors can affect a student’s well-being.
- Reach out to the offices of Veterans’ Student Services and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and other offices that work closely with students to learn more about the students they serve and their struggles and how you might be able to help them.
2. Educate students about how to regulate their emotions and reduce their stress. Talking about reducing or managing one’s responses to stress and actually doing so are two different things. How can we foster a culture that encourages students to understand and deal effectively with their emotions? We suggest:
- Offer a college colloquium on the science of emotions and why emotions matter to a person’s health.
- Allocate a space in the library or student union where students can co-create a mosaic of stories titled, “In memory of,” expressing what they lost over the past two years, especially in relation to the pandemic. Students are mourning and don’t necessarily know how to grieve.
- Hold weekly art/music/massage/pet therapy programs around the campus in easily accessible places. Such opportunities will enable students between classes to get a quick stretch, to pet a cat or to walk up to a mobile art studio and participate in a community art project. These opportunities can be particularly helpful during tough weeks like finals or other stressful exam periods.
- Offer online meditation sessions for students. Such sessions can be daily, brief and student-led efforts to create a culture of care and teach students how to regulate their emotions through various techniques. Such remote opportunities can be crucial, because isolation may not allow students to meet in person. Similarly, an online meditation community could also help if someone is not able to physically be at a specific place. Sometimes a person might just need tools to help collect their thoughts and find balance again.
3. Provide culturally relevant support. Mental health support should be tailored and recognize communal, cultural and global contexts. For example, the pandemic disproportionately affected students from historically marginalized backgrounds. Higher education must provide support that honors different students’ backgrounds and complex histories. We suggest:
- Reassure students from historically excluded backgrounds that you understand that the stress impacting them may be disproportionate, including the added stress from generational and intergenerational factors. Examine how students of color are experiencing the pressures of being at predominantly white institutions. To truly understand students who come from historically excluded backgrounds, you have to talk with them individually or in small groups. Some may not feel ready to engage in large conversations unless you first assure them that you will address the issues that pertain to them and their communities.
- Make certain that the counselors at your institution understand the distinct needs of students of color and are sufficiently trained about intergenerational trauma as well as cultural humility. It is also important to have diverse counseling services so that students of all backgrounds have someone they can identify with.
- Ensure that the counseling services offer an asset-based approach to mental health that recognizes that different groups of people experience different cultural and other stressors. People often find it difficult to identify sources of stress related to their cultural identity because they have become so ingrained in their daily lives.
- Include traditionally excluded students in the conversation about and planning for a post-pandemic institution. It’s important to understand that the old normal wasn’t working for everyone and that the vision for a new normal should be better and more equitable.
4. Work tirelessly to destigmatize conversations about mental health. Rather than throwing around words like “resilience” and assuming that everyone knows what that is, or that students can just “switch on” their “grit” and move forward in the face of ongoing adversities, help them develop those characteristics. Don’t treat students as if something is wrong with them. Students, like many people, are struggling to cope with ongoing uncertainty, traumas, divisiveness, illness and workload. “We want to endure and we want to be resilient,” one student told us. And they need the help of an entire community. But despite all the conversations about mental health, stigma still surrounds it. How can schools demystify mental health support? We suggest:
- Provide weekly mobile talk “therapy” stations where students can do walk-ins and talk for 10 minutes. Place those stations around the campus so they are easily accessible. For example, a table can have a therapist with a sign: “Are you feeling overwhelmed? You’re not alone. Got five minutes? I can help,” or something similar. Sometimes students don’t want to go through the process of making appointments and waiting to be seen; they often just want to vent to an adult who is impartial. (That said, this approach may not reach those who feel especially vulnerable in seeking help.)
- Ensure that you have enough support on the campus, and make sure students are aware of that support. This work cannot be sustainable if staff are spread too thin. How many therapists do you have? How long is the waiting period before a student can see one? Are the therapists themselves overwhelmed? What are you doing to help the helpers? Don’t wait for a crisis to happen to intervene.
- Hold yearlong personalized training sessions with the staff and faculty about how to recognize mental distress in students and how to help connect them to the right contextual, culturally attuned help. Empower them to advocate for changes in policies, such as grading on a curve or easing tuition payment deadlines, when those policies challenge students’ mental health.
- Offer students the chance to do an independent study, their honors thesis or senior capstone as a service project where they can choose to become mental health and well-being ambassadors. Perhaps they can visit various classes and talk about coping with stress, strategies for well-being and available support for students’ mental health.
- Help faculty understand that they, too, need to prioritize student well-being in order to help them learn. Encourage faculty to check in with their students regularly about how they are doing and the stress they are experiencing.
5. Prepare for the long-term effects of the pandemic. These effects include the impact of two years of disrupted learning, the post-traumatic stress many students are experiencing, as well as the effects of “long COVID.” Institutions should help students understand that what they are experiencing—the languishing burnout, the lack of motivation, the mental fogginess—could be due to the lingering effects of the pandemic and not because they are academically incapable. We suggest:
- Work with your health experts to ensure that the campus community understands the phenomenon of long COVID. Knowing one’s body and advocating for its health is especially important in light of the rising cases, especially among young people, of long COVID and its impact on the nervous system.
- Appreciate that many students’ struggle is more than needing to manage their time or develop the right study skills. Some students might be experiencing mental fogginess and other issues due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic or PTSD brought on by the pandemic. It doesn’t help to tell students to “manage their time better” when neurophysiological mechanisms might be impacting their ability to focus.
- Investigate what percentage of your students had COVID and are experiencing symptoms of long COVID, especially those related to mental fogginess, as they will undoubtedly impact how students show up, engage and learn.
- Create pamphlets highlighting long COVID symptoms to look for. Share those pamphlets with the campus community. Include information about the people who are at a higher risk of long COVID.
- Investigate what local community support is available for long COVID and send an email to everyone on the campus to share those resources. Also invite members of your campus community to post additional resources on a public message board.
This list is not exhaustive. But we hope these types of efforts will help destigmatize mental struggles and make students more comfortable with seeking effective, sustainable ways to cope. Surgeon General Murthy beckons us to respond swiftly, reminding us that “our obligation to act is not just medical—it’s moral.” We dream of a higher education that commits to truly developing what the Dalai Lama calls “mental immunity,” helping students become self-regulated and more effective learners who can grow and tackle wicked local and global problems.
Our call extends beyond the current moment; it is about the opportunity the pandemic presents for higher education to transform its approach to education. We ask institutions to pause and prioritize the whole student, their intellectual and emotional development, because learning cannot take place unless students are supported in both dynamics. Accordingly, we ask institutions to re-examine their vision of meaningful learning and student success, so they work to empower students not only with knowledge about the world but also through knowledge about themselves and how they can individually and collectively cope with the uncertainties of the present and the future. Only then will higher education truly empower all students to dare to hope, to learn and to thrive.