The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing efforts to address racial injustice--have renewed a focus on the importance of well-being and shone a spotlight on many of the challenges already faced by institutions of higher education (IHEs). Now, more than ever, promoting wellbeing is a core element of campus’s comprehensive safety efforts.
Prioritizing wellness as an antidote to illness has been the root of prevention work for decades. As higher education leaders take action on their plans for fall and beyond, consider mental wellbeing through this evolving lens-- from preventing harm, to advancing safety, to empowering students to thrive.
In addition to mental health, students are experiencing impact of this current moment across the 8 dimensions of wellness that many IHEs use as a guidepost for well-being efforts. In addition to the physical health threat of coronavirus itself, many students are also more sedentary and spending more time in front of screens. Individuals may also experience gaps in routine healthcare due to office closures or fear. From a financial standpoint, a recent study conducted by the Healthy Minds Network/ACHA found that 66% of students report that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused them more financial stress. Social challenges show up in the rate of students who report loneliness, and in the ways society has had to acclimate and communicate. And intellectually, students report perceiving gaps due to academic transitions ending abruptly.
While most believe students’ mental well-being is important, there is also an economic case for investing in mental health. The average yearly tuition for college, including room and board, is about $23,000. Existing research has found that students with a mental health condition are twice as likely to leave an institution without graduating, which alone is a compelling economic reason to do what we can do to support these students and increase the likelihood that they persist.
Data suggests institutions that prioritize wellness-related efforts will likely yield a solid return on investment. If, for example, an institution chose to invest just $20,000 into prevention efforts to support student mental health--less than the average cost of tuition room and board for just one student--they could retain 300 students and yield $3.1 million in tuition revenue.
Focus on Basic Needs
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified many students’ struggles to meet basic needs: health, safety, food and housing insecurity. IHEs must consider the whole student and put structures and practices in place at an institutional level to be able to support them: for instance, emergency funds, food pantries or access, and, in some instances, even case management.
Make Mental Health Part of Your Bottom Line
Now is the time to invest in meeting the mental health and wellness needs that we know students are facing. This may include investing or re-investing in telehealth, working with health insurance companies to ensure mental health care access regardless of a students physical location, and allocating funding for upstream, prevention-related efforts focused on holistic wellness.
Recognize the Interconnectedness of DEI and Mental Health
At a minimum, ensure that counselors are trained in cultural competency, and that counseling center staff are representative of the demographic make-up of the student body. Start or continue to offer therapeutic groups specifically for students of color with a focus on self-care and self-preservation. Also, educate students and staff on how to be effective allies and encourage counselors and administrators--especially those who are white-identifying--to also do their own anti-racism work.
Finally, prioritizing mental health is more critical than ever in the evolving COVID world. Colleges and universities must show their commitment by having resources in place for students and prospective students who wish to use them. They need to cast a wide net of support around students -- focusing on everything from well-being, social connectedness, financial wellness, and preparedness for academic rigor. These preparations go beyond the traditional purview of many campus safety professionals and demand a multidisciplinary approach that focuses on holistic student wellbeing as a benchmark for student safety.
Vector Solutions has a variety of employee and student mental health-related courses that help institutions raise awareness, identify risk factors and warning signs, and provide strategies to users on how to create positive environments.
Holly Rider-Milkovich, MA
Vice President of Impact & Education
Holly is a subject matter expert on preventing sexual and gender-based harassment and violence. Holly joined from the University of Michigan where she oversaw that institution’s prevention and advocacy efforts for nearly a decade. Holly also brings national policy experience to her role as one of the rule-makers for the 2014 Clery Act regulations and an advisor to the Obama Administration White House Taskforce on preventing campus sexual assault. She brings over 25 years of experience in preventing and responding to sexual- and gender-based violence in higher education, workplaces, and communities to her role at Vector Solutions.