A student mental health crisis awaits. Here’s how we avoid a bad fall

Extra funding should be requested now to staff up wellness centres, counselling centres and campus ministries, says Todd Zakrajsek

Todd Zakrajsek's avatar
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
21 Jun 2021
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Universities are heading for a mental health crisis following the pandemic, so they need to start preparing now

You may also like

Are online exams better for student mental health?
A stressed student prepares for an online exam. Assessment online brings a new set of problems for academics to be aware of

In just a few short months, higher education will face yet another massive challenge, and at many campuses there’s relatively little being done to prepare for it.

They can’t say they haven’t had fair warning. The US’ National Institute of Mental Health notes that nearly one in three teens suffers from an anxiety disorder, and those numbers increased rapidly as the pandemic progressed. And that is only anxiety. Difficulty sleeping, depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and a host of other mental health challenges plague the students who will arrive on college campuses throughout the US in a few months.

Campuses that remained remote this past academic year have an extra challenge. Not only will first-year students arrive on campus feeling bewildered and alone as they enter a foreign existence, second-years will join them, many also arriving on campus for the first time. That’s about half the students in any given US university.

If we don’t put into place a decent game plan, there could be dangerous consequences. It was just 18 months ago that higher education pivoted to emergency remote teaching. In fact, to call that a pivot is grossly unfair; it was a no-warning transformation.

The most significant part of the challenge was the lack of warning, and we’re now approaching another forced transformation, only this time it’s meeting student mental health needs. This is not a probability; it is a certainty. Even before the pandemic, campuses struggled to meet the mental health demands of students. We cannot wait until the new academic year to find out that we are struggling even more to meet the needs of our students, given serious potential consequences to their well-being.

There are things we can do to help mitigate this enormous challenge. First and foremost, we must not let ourselves get into a situation where we have just a few weeks or days to address the issue. Campus orientation is not the time to realise the needs of our students, faculty and staff. We need to start preparing right now.

Campus resources and information can be developed now to disseminate to faculty and staff. They are often the first individuals to note that a student requires mental health services and must refer those individuals to the proper support services. Over the summer, digital information can be created and sent to faculty and staff, noting the most prevalent mental health issues expected to surface and the critical role in getting students the assistance needed.

Specifically, faculty and staff need to be trained to recognise alcoholism, drug dependency, anxiety disorders, autism spectrum behaviours, anorexia, malnutrition and anything else your campus anticipates will be areas of need. Provide concise resources on symptoms, destigmatising language and the location of services.

All faculty and staff should be able to quickly pull up the wellness centre’s phone number, walk a student directly to the counselling centre or describe which building has a campus ministry aligned with the faith of the student in need. A student sitting in an office with obvious needs cannot be met with a response of: “I think you could use some help. We do have a counselling centre on campus, but I don’t know where it is. Try googling it.”

I know budgets are already stretched on many campuses this coming academic year, but mental health is a hugely important consideration. Extra funding should be requested now to staff up wellness centres, counselling centres and campus ministries. In addition, training can quickly be developed for faculty and staff who could triage those in need.

A different option for staffing may be bringing in extra workers for the first few months of the academic year to meet the initial needs on campus, while the summer is also a good time to firm up connections with community-based resources. Ideally, discussions between those on campus and within the community who provide mental health aid can identify specifically what services are available at which place, the most efficient mechanisms to transfer students to the appropriate place and what to do if one specific resource experiences more requests for aid than can be administered.

Several campuses have begun wellness initiatives, even creating wellness centres. And again, the summer is a great time to develop such an initiative.

During the pandemic, telehealth services grew dramatically. With a shortage of counsellors on many campuses, and to meet travel challenges of some students, consider implementing or extending virtual counselling options.

Finally, and important for numerous reasons, this summer is a great time to revisit policies regarding if and when parents can be notified of a student’s need for mental health services, along with what parents can be told. It is critical that faculty and staff understand policies and procedures fully. Parents often bring students to campus with both an expectation that students will be well cared for and that they, as the parents, will be called if their child needs mental or physical treatment. Material could be sent to parents prior to the start of the academic year reminding them of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act guidelines and what services the campus will provide to students in need.

This year is going to be challenging. But with careful planning and allocated resources, this challenge can be met successfully. In the spring of 2020, the entire educational system shifted completely how students were taught. We did that, and we can do this. If we start now, we’ll even have a bit of time to prepare.

Todd Zakrajsek is an associate professor in the department of family medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and president of the International Teaching Learning Cooperative.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site