When the University of Montana returned to offering in-person classes and services this fall, I was initially concerned how this return to “normal” would affect students’ mental health. In our counseling center, we took a proactive approach, offering both in-person and telecounseling as well as implementing strict COVID mitigation protocols to help students feel safe.
I’ve since been inspired by what I’ve witnessed. In our Fall Student Satisfaction Survey, more than 87 percent of students who received counseling services reported that their needs have been met. Students have been incredibly generous with their appreciation about meeting a counselor face-to-face, and with 89 percent choosing this option, students are communicating what is important to them. Increasing opportunities for students to have safe and meaningful interactions with others can help contribute to greater student well-being.
Throughout COVID, students have had fewer options to manage stress due to the limits COVID mitigation puts on their lives. Isolation, uncertainty, job loss, economic instability, illness and death, and mask and vaccine controversies—all are disruptions in the expected course of college life. With the full or partial return to in-person learning that occurred at many colleges in the fall of 2021, we were unsure what we would see given the well-documented mental health challenges students were facing.
Upon this return, most students were faced with both a modification of their campus lifestyle as well as an opportunity to find something they were missing the previous year: face-to-face contact with others (with or without masks), in-person learning, attendance at social events and new ways of experiencing themselves.
The Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse survey of 2,000 students about the fall of 2021, conducted in mid-November with support from Kaplan, has shown some encouraging data. Thirty-five percent of respondents felt their school was “very prepared” for the return to in-person learning and 49 percent believed their college was “somewhat prepared”; only 4 percent saw their school as “not prepared at all.”
In addition, 35 percent reported that their mental health was better in the fall semester than in spring 2021. Although students have indicated throughout the COVID era that loneliness and social isolation have negatively impacted their mental health, this survey also showed a positive trend in socialization, with 28 percent reporting that they’re socializing more this semester than ever before and 32 percent socializing more in the fall semester of 2021 than in the 2021 spring semester.
At the University of Montana, we’ve certainly seen students congregating more than we have since the pandemic altered operations in March 2020. Many students are masking up and starting to attend concerts, sporting events, art festivals and student affinity group meetings, as well as planning their own social events. As we would expect, within Counseling Services, students are reporting their needs for social contact are high, and they are working hard to ensure they meet this need, with many trying to do so safely.
There has been a lot of hard work done to support students, and I believe the uncertainties about the future we’re experiencing have reinforced the need to be flexible, adaptive and mindful of the comprehensive and evolving needs of students.
Here are some guidelines for campus teams to address the multifarious needs that students have been communicating to us:
Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.
- Do campuswide strategic planning. Addressing academic, budget, fundraising, athletics, operational infrastructure and human resources needs are vital to all schools, but we can’t lose sight of the reason we exist—to serve the students. And knowing our students, what kind of struggles they’re facing and the type of needs they have, beyond academics, will help us to build sustainable and thoughtful options for student retention and success.
- Design safe, flexible options for human connection. Rigorously use reliable data to promote social connectedness and opportunities to recreate. For example, University of Montana officials have approved bonfire pits and Adirondack chairs located in the large, grassy oval in the middle of campus to promote congregating safely, and an ice rink (free to students) was added in the winter months. Other resources:
- UM faculty toolkit for supporting students' learning through improved well-being
- Communicating with students in a time of uncertainty (from the College Transition Collaborative)
- Guide to embedding well-being into remote learning environments (from Simon Fraser University in Canada)
- Provide robust mental health and substance abuse counseling, as well as wellness, disability, advocacy and medical services. Ensure these services are known to students, staff and faculty and, if possible, are offered free of charge.
- Support for the underrepresented and students from diverse backgrounds. Campuswide DEI initiatives and student activities contribute to overall student wellness.
- Identify high-risk students. Setting up a behavioral intervention team or care team is an approach to consider.
- Increase help-seeking behavior. Train staff and faculty at all levels about having basic mental health conversations with students and how to advise students to get support on campus.
- Establish protocols for crisis management and suicide prevention. Some excellent resources include QPR, Mental Health First Aid and the JED Foundation.
- Help students find meaning and purpose in their education. Encourage critical thinking across campus about how students can think deeply and reflectively about their education—clarifying values and identities, learning from mistakes and finding their voice. (See Helping College Students Find Purpose—The Campus Guide to Meaning Making, Jossey-Bass, 2010.)
Ambiguity about what lies ahead for students and the entire world frames our decisions right now. We have students who will keep coming back to us, and they are hopeful that, despite it all, their lives can have purpose and their college education can be a vital component of their life plan.
Let’s acknowledge, respect and honor students’ challenges while at the same time doing all we can to respond to what we are seeing. Students are trusting us to educate them, and more than ever right now we need to think critically and flexibly about the options to provide a top-notch education with comprehensive student support that is responsive to what students are telling us they need.