Students returning to campus will carry trauma

Colleges and their staffs need to be prepared

IF EVER THERE was to be a naturalistic study of the outcome of prolonged emotional arousal, social isolation, secondary trauma, and learned helplessness on human beings, it is COVID-19. Symptoms of anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress are being reported by more than 40 percent of a population who have spent more than sixteen months being vigilant, separated from each other, exposed to violence through social media, and unable to control their world.

Psychological research finds that any one of these conditions reliably produces emotional distress in large numbers and we have endured all of them…at once. The “good news” is that the learning communities in higher education are some of the most favorable environments for healing what has been broken by this pandemic: facilitating relationships, managing emotions, experiencing mastery, and feeling safe.

As students return to campus this fall some will relish what resembles a return to normal but many, if not all, will be carrying trauma – some will have lost a loved one; most will have missed an important milestone or event; all will have been exposed to a year where, alongside the constant threat of becoming deathly ill, the news continuously replayed episodes of murder, racial reckoning, and political unrest.

Prior to the pandemic, college mental health specialists had been warning of an impending mental health crisis on campus resulting from an escalating demand for services, increased symptom acuity, more frequent emergencies, and the need for them to manage preexisting conditions, psychiatric emergencies, substance use and eating disorders, along with loneliness, academic stress and relationship issues, with a shortage of appropriate personnel and resources.

Mental health cannot be the sole province of counseling center professionals any more than proficiency in academic writing can be assigned exclusively to the English Department. These experts can provide leadership, but the responsibility for the behavioral health of our students, staff, and faculty belongs to all of us. Population interventions that involve prevention and promotion programs for mental wellness, early identification, and referral for those at greater risk must become a priorities. The same is true for a variety of interventions that utilize campus specialists, community providers, online services, while engaging the whole community. Developing these resources can leave the counseling centers more available to manage emergencies, acute issues, and group programs.

One particular intervention deserves special attention. For several decades, efforts to create learning environments in K-12 schools that support students’ social and emotional functioning have reduced psychological distress, absenteeism, and social problems, and improved academic performance. Hundreds of studies involving thousands of children show that when teachers create classrooms where students’ feelings are welcome, relationships with others are facilitated, and opportunities for mastery are offered, academic performance rises significantly and behavior and emotions are better balanced. While many of the K-12 social-emotional competencies are targeted towards certain psychosocial outcomes (e.g., reduced bullying, improved self-confidence), most practitioners describe social emotional learning (SEL) as a pedagogical model rather than a specific curriculum.

Faculty are a present, influential, and critical resource to the psychosocial development of young adults. A recent study of over 1,000 of higher education faculty members from across the country found that most desire to become more involved with what they see as worsening student mental health

When professors create classrooms by making introductions, taking a moment to check in and welcome students’ emotions into class discussions, include current events when relevant, and create workgroups, teams, and demonstration projects, our campus learning communities can reduce stress, isolation, and emotional dysregulation and support a sense of competence and control. Where relevant, making the pandemic experience a topic of analysis can facilitate our students’ ability to metabolize the stress of this difficult year. This is not mental health treatment, it’s mental health promotion.

As veterans of the same pandemic, our faculty colleagues first need to be compassionately engaged by senior leadership, given the opportunity to share their “COVID story,” offered whatever resources of accommodations they require, trained to help, and thanked for their service. This must happen before asking them to do more. While sharing some knowledge of signs, symptoms, risks, and resources involved with behavioral health, faculty need to be assured that they are not being asked to provide psychiatric care. Some orientation to the basics of SEL and “mental health first aid” are likely to be both welcome and helpful. There is a wealth of research and resources available for this training.

Additional interventions that provide the whole campus with mental health prevention and promotion programs; screening and early interventions for those at greater risk; and treatment options that include Telementalhealth, community caregivers, and hometown primary care and behavioral health professionals should become the post-pandemic normal. With the right environment and support systems in place, young people are remarkably resilient.

Meet the Author

Nicholas Covino

President, William James College
Developing a variety of behavioral health resources and stronger social and emotional competence among our students, staff, and faculty will increase their ability to have productive discussions about difficult issues, form more empathic and respectful relationships, seek avenues of empowerment, problem-solve with others, engage in advocacy and rediscover a sense of agency. This is the very essence of the college experience.

Whatever may come in the fall, we have an opportunity, now, to improve things and to define what a new normal in mental health looks like.

Dr. Nicholas Covino is president of William James College in Newton and a practicing psychologist.