The Deteriorating Mental Health of U.S. College Students: Part III

The Deteriorating Mental Health of U.S. College Students: Part III


How high school and college counselors can support students


When Career College Central began its series on the mental health of college students, the novel virus COVID-19 did not exist in humans. The phrase “new normal” wasn’t part of our collective vocabulary, and most laypeople probably didn’t know what an N95 was. And already, college students were depressed, anxious, and suicidal.


“Our students [deal] with really large social problems on a regular basis — they’re thinking about school shootings, climate change, big issues we haven’t begun to solve,” said Laura Horne, chief program officer at Active Minds.


Then, the novel coronavirus swept the globe. Seemingly overnight, campuses and dorms were shut down, classes were moved online, and thousands of students saw their plans crumble. Human resilience, innovation, and hope abound, but the 2020 pandemic has not been kind to anyone’s mental health, nor to the higher education system.


The pandemic and its effects have changed what the near future of higher education looks like for colleges and universities, instructors, counselors, and—especially—students.


Most students have faced a high degree of what Sharon Mitchell, PhD, president of AUCCCD (Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors) and the senior director of student wellness at the University at Buffalo, calls “ambiguous loss,” including losses like missing graduation ceremonies, the final season on a sports team, the chance to go to prom, or the opportunity to live independently for the first time.


Some have experienced “financial and career uncertainty, difficulty adjusting to online learning or the loss of a loved one to COVID-19,” Mitchell told the American Psychological Association. Together, these losses and those imminent challenges have caused a major shift in enrollment trends.


“One in six high-school seniors who expected to attend a four-year college full time before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus now think that they will choose a different path this fall,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. A new College Reaction/Axios poll says that 22 percent of college students across all four years are no longer planning to enroll this fall. What’s more, an Edventures Research report titled The Effects of COVID-19 on High School Experience and College Choice not only found that 37 percent of surveyed students said COVID-19 influenced their college choice, only 54 percent felt very sure they had made the right choice.


Under different, more ideal circumstances, this is exactly where a counselor would step in. Under these circumstances, when counselors are most needed, they are least likely to be able to connect with the students who need them.


The financial, health, and social effects of the 2020 pandemic have greatly impacted the lives of students, counselors’ visibility into those lives, and any sense of how best to support at-risk students and recognize those newly at risk.


According to survey results released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August, about 30 percent of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, compared with just 11 percent during the same time period last year. And a survey conducted in April by Active Minds found that 80 percent of college students nationwide said COVID-19 had negatively impacted their mental health, and over half said they don’t know where to go to get help.


For counselors at high schools, colleges, and universities around the nation, an already high-pressure, thin-stretched job has become even more difficult. Not being where students can find them and where they can work to identify at-risk students compounds their challenge. The number of students they are expected to support (virtually, no less) brings the challenge to a crest.


The crisis of too few counselors

Although the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recently released data showing that the student-to-school-counselor ratio is narrowing across the country—reaching its lowest margin in nearly 32 years—the closing gap is far from enough, especially in light of current circumstances.


“This new ratio data shows improvement, but there is still work to be done,” said Kwok-Sze Richard Wong, Ed.D., ASCA’s executive director. “Factors including continued advocacy for the profession, increased school district funding and the implementation of school counseling programs in every U.S. school are necessary to ensure every student receives essential support from a school counselor.”


While the ASCA recommends a ratio of 250 students to one counselor, this recently improved ratio puts the country at 430 students to one counselor (yes, that is the best it’s been in more than three decades), and that is far from equally spread. Many states remain well above the 250-to-1 recommended by the ASCA, including Arizona at 905-to-1.


“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the instability of relying on one counselor, or just a few, to guide hundreds of students through new academic hurdles, prepare them for an uncertain future and triage their mental health crises,” said the Hechinger Report. “Besides being away from counselors, kids are also out of sight of their teachers and peers, two groups that often help counselors identify who might need their help,” and “counselors around the country have scrambled to find answers to questions about how to ethically and logistically approach the new virtual reality of their work.”


Visibility into the vulnerable

Since mid-March, when Safer at Home initiatives and lockdowns were rolled out across the country, the Arizona Department of Child Safety says it has seen the number of calls to its child abuse hotline fall by 25 percent. This is “a reminder that students in vulnerable situations at home are isolated from the adults on campus, most often counselors, who keep careful watch for signs of abuse and neglect,” said the Hechinger Report.


“Being away from a daily check-in with their school support system can . . . mean they might not have someone advocating on their behalf every day. Many students could be deeply vulnerable now that schools are closed indefinitely,” said Bronwyn Kotarski of the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA).


“Vulnerable students are typically students identified as at risk—for truancy, for being a parent, for supporting their parents, for having a parent in jail, for begin a so-so reader, for being a foster kid, for having a home that is food insecure or has no permanent address, for being abused, for abusing drugs, for any or all the above and for a never-ending number of factors that stack-up against too many young people who need additional supports to move towards graduation,” say Shaunna Finley, PhD, and John M. McLaughlin, PhD, with ChanceLight Education.


“With it seeming highly likely that the 2020–21 school year will have COVID outbreaks, continuity struggles, and enormous community and media focus,” they posit, “at-risk students are more likely than most to avoid school, fall behind, check out, and drop out.”


“The pandemic is a real recipe for concern because we’re going to see increased levels of need from students. At the same time, universities are experiencing significant financial downturns,” including hiring freezes and budget cuts, says Catherine Grus, PhD, American Psychological Association’s chief education officer. “I really worry about the ability of universities to adequately provide for the mental health needs of their students.”


How counselors can combat concern and support students

One thing that has surfaced during the pandemic is an awareness of how little control we as individuals often have over our circumstances. Colleges and universities cannot change the fact that opening their campuses like normal could lead to public health crises. Students cannot change the fact that their high school and college years will look different than they had hoped. Counselors cannot change the fact that they do not currently have visibility into the lives of the students who need them most.


What each of these groups can control, however, is their reaction to the circumstances. Colleges and universities can adjust budgets, create hybrid, physically-distanced learning environments and build online programs. Students can reevaluate their choices and take advantage of their support systems. Counselors can continue to provide the guidance and support they always have to students who come to them, and they can look for new ways to reach “invisible” students.


  • Get in front of them . . . figuratively. In such a stressful time, students are focusing on surviving, not thriving. Lean into the forced digital environment and remind students via email, social media, and text that you are available to support them, help them make decisions, and connect with additional resources as needed.
  • Walk them through their decision-making processes. No, their options for the 2020–2021 school year aren’t what any of us expected. Their carefully planned paths may have crumbled in front of their eyes. But they still have options. As they’re trying to decide what to do next, guide them through the factors that led them to make their original education choice and reevaluate which factors changed.
  • Help them see all the options. Instead of attending online classes at a university chosen for its campus life, encourage students to consider other options. Often, colleges that have been operating programs online for years are better-prepared to handle an influx of virtual students than traditional schools.
  • Assure them that this is temporary. In a crisis as all-encompassing as COVID-19, seeing past the pain is difficult. But the pandemic will come to an end and opportunities will reopen.
  • Connect them with additional resources. A school counselor may not be specialized enough for some students’ current challenges. Be ready to help connect students with the support they need, especially if it seems intimidating or hard to find.
  • Remember how vital the work of a counselor is. As important as high school and college counselors were pre-pandemic, they are now invaluable. Finley and McLaughlin say at-risk students with a champion, such as a caring counselor, are much more likely to complete graduation requirements. As such, counselors need to take time for themselves and their own mental health in order to best support students.


Thank you, counselors, for all you do.

Read the rest of this edition of Career College Central Magazine!


Throughout 2020, Career College Central will continue to examine the mental well-being of college students, focusing specifically on how institutions can provide systemic support and resources, how counselors can better understand their most at-risk students, and how students themselves can take steps to support their mental wellness.

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