Colleges go virtual to address growing mental health needs

Dive Brief: 

  • The coronavirus is taking a toll on students’ mental health, and colleges are turning to virtual services to help learners cope during the pandemic. 

  • Experts say students may be struggling with feelings of isolation and heightened anxiety from economic hardship and unknowns about the virus. In turn, already-strained counseling centers are seeing or expecting increased demand. 

  • But colleges should carefully evaluate virtual services and consider their limitations, according to one recent guide.

Dive Insight: 

The pandemic is taxing Americans’ mental health, including that of college students. In a recent survey of more than 45,000 students attending public research universities, roughly one-third screened positive for major depressive disorder and 39% screened positive for generalized anxiety disorder. 

These disorders were higher among women, students of color, and low-income and LGBT students, as well as student caregivers and those who didn’t adapt well to remote instruction, according to the survey, which was conducted between May and July. 

Moreover, around 60% of students in a separate survey said the pandemic has made it harder to access mental healthcare. That survey covered nearly 19,000 students and was conducted between March and May. A higher share of students also reported their mental health harmed their academic performance during the spring than last fall. 

Students may be struggling with feelings of isolation while on campus, experts said. “It’s not what they signed up for,” said Stephen Wonderlich, vice president for research at Sanford Health-Fargo. “A lot of time, their socializing is limited, their eating locations are limited (and) their classrooms are limited.”

With the coronavirus hindering in-person services, colleges are turning to virtual offerings to help students with their mental health. Several colleges, for example, are providing students with apps to access mental health services or contracting with teletherapy providers. 

And some schools are looking to help students struggling with their finances. Low-income students are dropping out of college at a higher rate than usual this fall, The Washington Post reported. 

InsideTrack, a student services nonprofit, is using $500,000 in grants to launch an emergency coaching network for up to 5,000 college students who are experiencing pandemic-related challenges, such as mental health issues or financial hardship. So far, about a dozen institutions have signed on to use the services, including North Central Texas College and Kingsborough Community College, in New York. 

Large increases in the use of InsideTrack‘s crisis support services prompted the nonprofit to develop the new offering. “Prior to COVID, a large portion of the college-going population was affected by basic needs issues,” said Dave Jarrat, InsideTrack’s senior vice president of strategic engagement and growth. “(The pandemic) has deepened that problem for folks who were already experiencing it, and it has widened the problem.”

Up to 10 colleges will also receive staff training from InsideTrack on coaching students through challenging situations. 

Meanwhile, the College of Charleston, which has in-person classes this fall, is teaming up with the nearby Medical University of South Carolina to bolster its mental health services

During the initiative’s first year, College of Charleston students will have access to the university’s 24/7 urgent care platform, as well as telepsychiatry and in-person psychiatry services. The university will also assess the college’s healthcare services and recommend ways it can improve.

Other schools are spearheading mental health initiatives they hope will benefit their surrounding communities. The University of North Dakota, for instance, teamed up with Sanford Health to create a series of free online education modules to help people cope with common mental health issues tied to the pandemic.

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