With the start of the 2021 academic year approaching, the evolving COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 610,000 Americans and upended countless lives, including those of college students. Students experienced death in their families, financial hardship, significant disruption to learning, isolation from their peers, and a dramatic decline in mental health. As universities shut their doors last year to lessen the spread of the virus, students saw the physical world of a vibrant, sprawling campus shrink into a Zoom window on a dispassionate laptop screen.
Anxiety, depression, suicidality, and loneliness were major issues for students before the pandemic, but have now risen to the top of the list of concerns for university administrators. With the pandemic negatively affecting everyone and half of all college students experiencing serious symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, we are now in an environment where empathy towards those experiencing mental health issues is high. Prominent public figures, from Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles to BTS and Justin Bieber, are further destigmatizing conversations about mental health and emphasizing the importance of prioritizing it. Universities, meanwhile, are working on ways to bring students back to campus in the fall and begin a new normal in college life and instruction.
How can universities seize the moment and help students transition back into a college experience that fosters post-traumatic growth and resilience rather than post-traumatic stress? Mandating vaccination to keep COVID-19 at bay, as a number of universities are doing, will be crucial to creating a safe environment that lowers anxiety and allows students to flourish in their studies. Encouraging as much in-person activity on campus as possible and changing the way we think about college student mental health will also be necessary for a healthy return to school.
Research (including our own) has shown that strong social support networks are crucial to helping people bounce back from hardship and avoid anxiety and depression. The kind of social dislocation caused by the pandemic is thus particularly problematic for those in their college years, a time when students form their identities and lifelong friendships. Through our work with Harvard’s Graduate Student Mental Health Initiative, we have also seen the social disruption take a disproportionate toll on those who started their studies just before or during the pandemic, as well as on LGBTQ, minority, and first-generation students.
As students return to campus or arrive there for the first time, administrators would do well to empower them, through time, space, resources and encouragement, to build or rebuild their social networks. These initiatives should help students make meaningful and caring relationships, improve the way they listen and speak to each other across difficult issues and offer support in the face of hardship. Proactive collaboration across students, faculty and staff with the goal of making dorms, departments and clubs feel more like family will be a significant boost to everyone’s mental health. And modeling open-mindedness and civil disagreement through classroom discussions and public forums, where everyone involved feels heard and understood, will help create a college environment that is characterized less by stressful antagonism and more by mutual respect.
Caring for faculty and staff — themselves hit hard by the pandemic — should also be a significant part of the paradigm shift in college mental health. Increasing the value placed on excellent teaching and advising, arranging partnerships between departments and campus mental health services to bring cognitive behavioral therapy and other tools directly to students and providing adequate training for how to work with students in poor mental health, will all be helpful. We know that the vast majority of faculty want to be there for students, but they are telling us that they cannot do it alone. Increased collaboration across departments and university services will help faculty and staff build open and supportive relationships with their students, a process that will benefit the mental health of everyone involved.
Zoom and other remote-learning technologies can assist in these efforts, to the extent that they help students maintain real-life relationships and lower barriers to mental health services. They can also make it easier for students with disabilities to access course content and help those who miss an event or a class to catch up, reducing academic stress. But they come with their own forms of stress and make it harder for people with similar interests to meet serendipitously. Classrooms and departments — if seen as spaces where students with shared curiosities across academic years can meet, work together and build friendships — can play an important role in improving student mental health. Though students, faculty and administrators might be tempted to continue relying heavily on remote-learning technology for its sheer convenience, this path of least resistance could also exacerbate mental health issues.
Changing culture around mental health will mean envisioning college as a space where academic excellence is closely intertwined with meaningful social relationships and thriving mental health. Students with poor mental health are less engaged, less productive, and even less likely to finish their program, a problem that threatens our universities’ core missions.
While universities cannot stop the waves of distress from hitting their students, they can use their people, their resources and their physical spaces to teach students to surf. Progress will take time and persistence, but vaccinated in-person learning in the coming academic year, inside and outside the classroom, will be a major step out of our current mental health crisis.
Valentin Bolotnyy is a Kleinheinz Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Paul Barreira is an associate professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of Harvard University’s Graduate Student Mental Health Initiative.