How colleges can support students’ mental health (opinion)

I recently wrote a piece for YES! Weekly, a regional alternative media outlet, on the mental health effects of COVID-19 on LGBTQ+ youth, and in my interviews a common theme existed — the word “humbling” was used constantly.

When I talked to other students, they said that COVID-19 was humbling. I was humbled to hear their stories. We were all humbled to see so many people finally supporting mental health awareness.

Yet there is one thing that seems to have not changed: students are still struggling.

Pre-pandemic, students worked on their mental health, found ways to cope, usually involving friends, and met with counselors to talk about their struggles.

Mid-pandemic, students were disconnected. Many lost access to college counselors due to campuses being shut down or being out of state. Most lost the coping skills they had worked so hard to develop. Many lost faith that it would get better.

But this isn’t just an issue within the LGBTQ+ community. This is an issue affecting students across the country, regardless of sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, major, minor, interests or hobbies.

According to the recent Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse survey, only 8 percent of college students said their mental health was excellent. One-quarter of respondents rated their mental health as poor. The largest response was “fair,” selected by 40 percent.

Fair is not OK. OK, having 100 percent of students say their mental health is excellent is purely unrealistic. However, as Nido Qubein, president of my institution, High Point University, says, “There is no such thing as unrealistic dreams, only unrealistic timelines.”

So let’s talk. College administrators, I understand that you are trying your best. I understand this has been a hard year for everyone.

I also understand that you often can’t do things without hearing from students and that students don’t like to talk about their mental health. But that is what I am here to do.

In high school, I struggled with my mental health constantly. I felt like I was not enough. Like I was worthless. I was depressed and anxious. It was a struggle to get out of bed each day.

Although I objected, I got help. I got better. I became the person I am today.

Entering college was scary, bringing with me a past of pain and struggle. But I also brought the coping skills I learned in therapy and the tools needed to find the positive.

When COVID-19 threw us into a new world, many of those skills were lost. I couldn’t see friends. I couldn’t see family. I couldn’t go outside. I couldn’t go shopping.

We need colleges to help us. We need administrators to find innovative ways to engage us. But we also just need you to tell us it will be OK.

Among the 2,002 students who took the Inside Higher Ed survey, only 4 percent have the perspective of currently attending fully in-person classes. If that number is reflective of what’s happening nationally, just 784,000 college students of the 19.6 million that Statista estimates are in the U.S. are attending fully in-person classes.

With that comes struggle. Disproportionately, students not attending fully in-person classes are struggling with their mental health.

Right now, we need you. We need colleges to help us. We need administrators to find innovative ways to engage us. But we also just need you to tell us it will be OK.

Words and Actions That Helped Me and My Peers

High Point University is one of the few colleges and universities having all in-person classes. The best way I know to support students is through what I have seen here.

When HPU shut down, we all were very confused about what would happen next, like most everyone in the world. We received emails from President Qubein, messages that were reassuring. But even he admitted it was an evolving situation and things would change.

Hearing from President Qubein was reassuring. Hearing him say that he, in fact, did not know everything, oddly gave me a sense of calm. When reflecting on this, I realized why it did — he was honest with us.

President Qubein didn’t try to lie to us and say things would be fine or that he had it under control. He didn’t try to play it down or act like everything was fine.

So often, college administrators try to make everything appear perfect. But this wasn’t perfect. This was just about the farthest from perfect we could be, and our president admitted it.

As time went on, the Office of Counseling Services offered virtual programming. The Campus Activities Team was hosting virtual bingo and movie nights. Professors were reaching out to check on us individually. A new normal had arrived.

Moving back onto campus in August, I had no clue what to expect. As the vice president of external communications for the Student Government Association, I knew I had a unique opportunity to reach students.

In collaboration with university administrators, SGA gave every single incoming freshman a stress ball and a piece of paper. The stress ball had the Office of Counseling Services contact information, and the paper had the SGA Executive Council’s contact information — 14 resources in total that students had as they pulled onto campus again for the first time.

Reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Imagine this. You are a struggling student, in a bad place, and don’t know what to do. You unlock your phone as you lie in bed. You open Instagram and through tears see the same graphic across your entire feed telling you that it will be OK.

HPU has recognized that students need ways to decompress and destress. From installing an ice-skating rink, organizing a carnival, bringing in food trucks and more, HPU has stepped up. I’m proud to call this campus home.

Masked up and socially distanced, we are having a good time. We are glad to be on campus. And while it may be unrealistic for every campus to be in person right now, it is not unrealistic to expect every campus to support the mental health of its students.

I encourage college administrators everywhere to step up. Support your students. Find new ways to reach out. Be honest with your students. Be transparent with your students. Give your students ways to decompress. Collaborate with students, especially the Student Government Association. But most importantly, remind your students that it is OK and that mental health is not an illness.

Inside Higher Ed