What about Student “mental” well-being?
The pandemic dramatically changed lives in 2020. In fact, the entire world more or less shut down within a matter of weeks. And while this had a great impact on millions of people from different backgrounds and professions, one of the most sensitive groups affected by the virus-related upheaval were students.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the lives of students across the globe, especially college and university students. Students have been forced to leave their trusted educational settings behind to get accustomed to a new digital normal. This has not been an easy transition – for many reasons. Not only did students have to completely give up their vibrant on-campus life, they have also been deprived of needs like housing, libraries, sports facilities, and social and cultural resources. Not to mention international students in foreign countries who have been obliged to leave campus with no real idea when they would be returning to their traditional learning environment. These are all uniquely challenging factors accelerating stress and associated mental health issues for students.
The shift to an online platform for ‘learning’ has created further challenges for students by emphasizing economic, class, race, and ethnicity differences (#digitaldivide). A significant number of students (and even staff!) did not have laptops, tablets, or even internet connectivity to enable their system of digital education. In homes with several kids, sharing devices has become an unwelcome requirement, exacerbating the many challenges faced by students’ technological and connectivity needs. Finally, these intensive online engagements also highlighted crucially lacking digital interaction skills from teaching staff not accustomed to full-time online ‘teaching’…
All of this has not only reduced the effectiveness of teaching and learning, it also increased anxiety and stress amongst students. To further exacerbate the situation, while the pressure has been building on students, not all academic institutions have adequately addressed students’ mental and emotional needs. These students now have reported dramatically higher rates of depression, anxiety, and fear for the future than an average normal student of two years ago (edit: here a more updated article).
According to recent research in Denmark in 2020, based on international students of the University of Copenhagen, around 75% of students reported feeling anxious at different times, while 65% of them expressed concerns regarding their academic progress and how it would be affected by the changed settings. 65% of students also reported feeling lonely, which may contribute to even more mental health problems if not checked and mitigated by mental health professionals. A great proportion of students also expressed feelings of being useless, confused, and unhappy during the pandemic. Some students even mentioned they do not feel like being a student, especially the first-years with a lack of opportunity to build a rich social life on campus.
Increasing the hurdles, access to mental health facilities has also been cut short by the pandemic. In-person sessions with advisors have become a rarity, as many therapists/advisors can only offer online meetings instead of in-person. In a survey by the American Council on Education, it was found that 68% of the university presidents were increasingly concerned about the student’s mental health. While institutions may recognize the necessity for strategies to support the well-being of their students, it is now time to execute quickly and acutely to avoid a mental-health crisis’.
Academic institutions are beginning to realize the magnitude of the potential mental health crisis. Broken and emotionally under-developed students will not be able to grow and thrive under the burden. Institutions must take notice of this and make adequate arrangements for all students, coming from all kinds of backgrounds, to enable them to access their education easily, while also maintaining as healthy a lifestyle as possible. In this context the idea shared by Boston University Researcher Sarah Ketchen Lipson makes a lot of sense:
“All students should receive mental health education, ideally as part of the required curriculum.”
Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning, as more and more authorities, colleges, and universities have started to recognize both the immediate and longer-term challenges for students. Increasingly, flexible, and adaptable measures are being put in place to support students. The Guardian newspaper, for example, recently published an article with tips for students to manage their mental well-being, while institutions like the University of Sunderland in the UK and La Trobe University in Australia have put well-being programs in place, and pro-actively reach out to vulnerable students to understand and support them.
Spring will come, and with it hopefully the end of the pandemic! Until that time, institutions, and each of us, have an increasing responsibility to find creative ways to take care of students, and to stand shoulder to shoulder with them (your ‘customers’, our children, and our future leaders) to successfully navigate the pandemic!
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#### Initially published on LinkedIn 2nd March 2021 ####