When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and “normal life” as we knew it came to a screeching halt in March 2020, schools at all levels, from preschool through college and university, had to figure out next steps. As the pandemic raged on and we slogged through months of remote learning and then a return to a new version of in-person learning, it has become clear that the social-emotional losses of isolation, lack of practice in social settings, and nagging fear about health and the future have taken a considerable toll on social-emotional well-being and ultimately on mental health. Researchers are now pointing to potential changes in brain structure of students in the COVID cohort, as well as their worrying rise in anxiety levels. As a result of these stressors, many students entered this year at high risk of dropping or stopping out, making this a make-or-break time for both individuals and campuses affected by this trend.
As faculty and staff members in a school of education and social policy, we have worked to engage with our community partners, and the message is resounding. We all need help with social-emotional learning and mental health, both for students and for staff. Additionally, because students, staff, and faculty are all facing these challenges at the same time, it is unsettling for many of us who rely on “being prepared” for class not to be able to be at least one step ahead of our students.
Spring 2022 brought forth issues with students that we did not expect. While faculty expected a return to pre-pandemic classrooms, the reality has been different. Instructors both at our institution and nationwide shared thatmany students struggled with consistent attendance, and instructors struggled with a constantly changing cast of students. While in the 2020–21 school year we struggled with absence due to physical health, the recent absences often resulted from mental health or other pressures.
Students who might be at risk of failing a class were more likely to stop attending class during the term, with anxiety and low academic performance forming a spiral that resulted in many course withdrawals and failing grades. While students typically earn lower grades in classes they find challenging, this past term these were concentrated in classes where they felt the least confidence, such as mathematics, and consequently, students tended to disengage, making learning even less likely.
Social-emotional issues interfered with our students’ learning and progress. Students’ inability to resolve conflicts among themselves and subsequent enlisting of faculty and staff in their conflicts became more prominent in both undergraduate and graduate programs. Faculty and staff morale frayed during the term, and instructors expressed frustration that things were not getting back to a pre-pandemic “normal.” Without opportunities for faculty to refuel emotionally, their frustration could manifest as negativity toward students, creating a spiral downward as students responded with disrespect.
For deans, department heads, faculty, administrators, and other campus leaders, prioritizing student mental health needs must be an ongoing priority. The current upsurge in mental health needs will not decline anytime soon. It is time to focus on solutions in response to the needs of all because we will continue to plunge into this new normal. Here are three possible solutions and responses to adjust to the needs of our students while also considering the challenges faculty and staff endure.
Academic leaders need to provide resources and professional development to help their units recognize and address mental health issues. Faculty and staff are sometimes the first to identify students’ potential warning signs or mental health emergencies; however, most are not trained to address the needs of students in crisis. Additionally, faculty and staff should prioritize their own self-care needs and are not and cannot be available 24/7 for students.
Our school has provided opportunities for faculty and staff to be trained in Mental Health First Aid to help them understand what to do when students open up to them. This training aims to help faculty and staff not to become counselors for students but to be skilled at recognizing symptoms and referring students to resources. These trainings also give an entire academic unit a shared vocabulary around mental health issues and make clear that the unit is dedicated to the mental health and wellness of all affiliates. Additionally, campuses investing in an internal or external 24-hour mental health counseling program will alleviate the pressure faculty and staff feel when students share emergencies with them.
With increased mental health needs, leaders need to normalize and encourage reaching out to students to connect with faculty, advisors and staff throughout the semester. Posting weekly time slots with an open door and waiting for potential student visitors is not an ideal office hour plan when the shift focuses on students’ mental health and well-being in addition to academic support. Instead, schools and departments can create micro-events that serve as opportunities to build meaningful relationships, create dialogues, and identify warning signs of concern.
Deans, department heads and other leaders can help and encourage faculty to create engaging opportunities for student, faculty, advisor, and staff interaction. For example, faculty can use predetermined, already committed office hour time slots to host “flash advising,” donut talks, popcorn pop-ins, and coffee and candy hour–type events. Sending a last-minute universal email or learning management system (LMS) announcement inviting students or advisees to meet “right now” or at an advertised upcoming time can be more effective than trying to get students to commit to a future time slot. These incentivized events can then be used to discuss academic or nonacademic topics one-on-one with each student.
Schools and departments can also help instructors and students manage their time and energy through course materials designed to address these issues up front. Creating a course accessible to all learners benefits students and faculty. Developing a well-structured, accessible course reduces the need to react and respond to “daily fires,” saving time and energy. Furthermore, creating a predictable and organized course with clear expectations will help students focus on learning while easing student anxieties, frustrations, and failures.
Key elements of a universally accessible course—whether in person, hybrid, or online—include displaying a daily posted agenda, clearly relating the daily learning goal, and allowing a variety of assessments to demonstrate understanding. Additionally, adding opportunities for no-stress formative assessment checkpoints (that can guide instruction) and maintaining a well-organized LMS (such as Canvas or Blackboard), will create a predictable and organized course that eases anxiety and promote learning.
When students can easily anticipate “what’s next” in their courses and workload, they are able to control their learning in a low-stress environment. Planning predictable routines and structures creates comfort for teachers and learners and acknowledges many learners’ potential social and emotional needs.
Promoting mental health and wellness of our students can no longer be part of the list of “other duties as assigned” in higher education; it is literally part of everyone’s job description, from campus leadership to faculty to staff. Prioritizing mental health is neither optional nor a temporary solution to post-pandemic higher education; it must be a long-term expectation and commitment. We must meet students’ needs and contribute to broader change around the growing mental health crisis. We must develop and share concrete solutions to bring social emotional, mental health, and wellness programming and support to the forefront of our academic leadership agenda.
Kathy Welby, EdD, is director of K–12 programs at the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College.
Deborah Margolis, PhD, is dean of the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College.
Russ Olwell, PhD, is associate dean of the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College.