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Student Mental Health

Student Mental Health ... The Road Back to Class

Posted on: April 15, 2021

Written by Monica Galloway Burke, Karl Laves, Jill Duba Sauerheber, and Aaron Hughey, authors of Helping College Students in Distress: A Faculty Guide

The novel coronavirus pandemic upended and transformed higher education, leading to changes in teaching and learning, traditions, social interactions, commencement celebrations, study abroad experiences, and the college experience in general. These unexpected changes presented challenges to college students’ learning, mental health, coping strategies, and overall wellbeing. Now, higher education institutions are preparing for college students to return to the traditional classroom setting after a long period of hybrid and online instruction as well as the living through a pandemic. For the students, this return could create a situation that precipitates the following:

Students could experience temporary depersonalization, mild anxiety, and similar issues that impact their mental health simply because the environment has made an abrupt change.  Whether good or bad, desired or unwanted, planned or random, a sudden change in environment can leave students feeling a bit displaced, surreal, and “not themselves.”

Students could experience survivor guilt and grief as not all of their peers will come back to campus, and some students will have lost family members and friends.  It might be difficult for a student who has experienced loss, a parent for example, to sit in a room of peers who are talking about being glad to be back and getting away from family.

Students could experience survivor’s relief as some students may experience a great relief when they find themselves, finally, back in a classroom.  Much like we do after a long holiday break, we may all feel the need to catch up with one another and we may be easily distracted by stories we want to share with each other.

Students could experience anger and tension as some students may feel “behind” academically as the pandemic response interrupted their college plans and as a result, may return to class with an urgency or even an irritability toward the university and the country. Given the past year of uncertainty, some students may want even more reassurance and predictability in their courses. It might help to take extra time in reviewing the syllabus, perhaps setting aside time for a one-on-one meeting with students who are feeling anxious to let them ask questions in private.

Students may have returned home during the last year to a volatile family setting. Whereas campus life had protected them from these troubling dynamics, months back in that setting may have triggered and/or opened old wounds. While a return to campus life will provide needed physical distance, the emotional distress will likely not settle along with the move.  

On the road back to class, it is likely that some students will experience distress. This may appear in the form of anxiety, hesitancy in engaging, or even confusion.  We offer some tips for faculty to protect and nurture students’ mental health as they return.

Tip 1: Begin or end class with a brief check in, with guided and limited sharing. For example, you can build a class activity/assignment around reflecting on the past year, lessons learned, and things the students want to maintain/continue. It’s important to contain these check ins within a time frame (i.e., 10 to 15 minutes). That way there is a boundary around the sharing; students then have a sense that the sharing is expected to be brief and not necessarily exhaustive.

Tip 2: One of the first steps you can use is simply listening. Although it sounds simplistic, basic listening skills and presence can go a very long way in providing a safe container for students to share information about their emotional and mental well-being. In most cases, a pair of listening ears and someone else’s attunement can help decrease the intensity of the perceived stress. In fact, listening and attunement are the very basic and essential elements of social engagement.

Tip 3: Offer periodic reminders that everyone needs help at some time and help can be where you find it. Provide the students with a list of resources in the syllabus that includes counseling services, university faith-based organizations, volunteer and service-learning opportunities, and online chat rooms and hotlines.

Tip 4: A short and positive talk at the first of the semester about “civil discussion” could help since it has been a while since many students have had to take turns in conversations without prompts and technology-based guides. For example, it is harder to dominate a discussion on Zoom. And relational “etiquette” tends to be different in face-to-face interactions than in non-synchronous social media settings.

Tip 5: In the classroom, recognize the signals of a student in distress. Sensing distress can be intuitive. Most of time, however distress is noticeable. Watch for subtle and micro-muscular changes or states in the face. Are the muscles around the eyes relaxed? Does there appear to be tension in the jaw? Look at the student’s posture. Do they look too still? Or do they look agitated? Faculty can take the opportunity and ask students about their distress. They may offer something like, “I noticed that your body looks sad. Are you okay?” or “Your face seems to be holding some tension. Are you okay?” Answers to these inquisitive questions can help guide faculty towards which next steps are the most appropriate. So as to not cause students further distress, these personal questions should be not be asked in front of the class or among peers. 

There has been a fundamental shift in the way everything operates over the last year or so and we may never get back to the way things were before Covid-19 entered our lives.  Although many students are anxious to return to a more traditional approach to learning; others may be much more reserved as they contemplate re-integrating into the “new normal.” In addition, many students have grown comfortable — more so than they may realize — relating to their instructors and peers through technology. 

The bottom line is that all students experience stress and anxiety differently, and although there are always commonalities to their experiences, there really is no “one size fits all” when it comes to responding to the distress often precipitated by transitions. The relatively sudden move to virtual and hybrid learning formats was very traumatic for many students. Although some handled the shift better than others, everyone had to adjust to some extent – and adjustments can at times inevitably cause tension and angst. The same is true as we all return to more familiar surroundings.

It is essential that faculty consider each student’s needs individually and, as such, strive to meet those needs with empathy, understanding, and patience. It may be years before we encounter similar circumstances – or it may be next week. The point is that we do not know when an unexpected circumstance will occur that disturbs our lives. The lessons we have hopefully learned from living through Covid-19 should serve us well in the future. One of the most important lessons is that even though students can be remarkably resilient, they have also lived through unique and exceptionally challenging times.  We are still assessing how the experience will impact them long-term, so let’s tread lightly and with compassion.