The college years are an inherently challenging period of life. Increased academic demands and abrupt changes in social norms can present some added stress for students. The question of how to help students deal with “stress” and “anxiety” has found its way into most meeting agendas.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these conditions have only worsened. Students are feeling increasingly isolated and stressed now that they have fewer academic breaks, and as a result, mental health concerns are rapidly increasing.
Still, there’s a clear path to tackling these issues. Understanding which health and wellness issues are most prevalent right now is the first necessary step institutions should take to address wellness for their students.
Here are the top health and wellness challenges students are facing and what some schools are doing about them:
A Lack of Connection Threatens Happiness
Building connections is a vital part of the college experience. Many students are away from home, so properly assimilating into their new lives involves building and maintaining strong connections to their peers, campus and the college lifestyle in general. Unfortunately, the effects of the pandemic have made fostering these relationships feel borderline impossible.
In fact, COVID-19 has become so prevalent on many campuses that some colleges are designating isolation spaces for students who have tested positive. As a result, social groups are becoming increasingly fragmented leaving many feeling isolated and alone.
Stress has increased especially among first-year students— who are not only faced with adjusting to the rigor of college while being away from home but also making friends while social distancing — all while missing out on all of the college freedoms they had long dreamed of.
In light of these troubling circumstances, many students might adopt a “what’s the point” attitude. In other words, what’s the point of even showing up for their online courses when their professors can’t see them? What’s the point of pursuing a degree in a field that’s rapidly changing and could look vastly different in a few years? What’s the point of studying spreadsheets when perhaps friends and families are sick?
Students once thrilled with the prospect of attending their dream university can quickly take a nosedive into a spiral of self-doubt, losing sight of why they chose to attend college in the first place. Without a reminder of the value that this community can still bring, some may even decide to abandon their pursuit of higher education altogether. This is why it’s crucial for higher ed to be proactive in addressing their students’ anxieties.
How Universities Can Be Proactive
Students are closely monitoring how their colleges are handling the challenges of COVID-19. As many as 44% say they don’t currently feel supported by their schools, with 77% stating that these action plans will significantly impact their willingness to return for future semesters.
As a result, showing students they care is more critical than ever for colleges. A large part of that is to be proactive from the very beginning by reimagining and adapting student experiences. Reformatting club meetings and on-campus gatherings for a new, digital-first age of engagement is a creative solution that can keep students active and engaged while being safe. Some schools, for example, are beginning to use Jamboards for large-scale collaboration and utilizing virtual breakout groups to spark more intimate interactions. Regardless of the strategy, campuses should be leveraging all of their known digital channels and seek opportunities for implementing new ones to aid in maintaining vital community connections.
With that said, changes extend far beyond the classroom. Where students would once connect at the gym, in the student union or at local restaurants, they are now forced to abide by social distancing guidelines and foster friendships with the presence of face masks. That’s why it’s critical for administration to think beyond educational-based responses and extend their efforts to supporting their students’ college experiences beyond the classroom.
In fact, a few forward-thinking universities have jumped at this opportunity and sponsored digital extracurriculars, helped clubs offer sketch comedy live streams, virtual cooking classes and even online fitness classes.
Addressing the Mental Health Social Stigma
Of course, no matter how much online entertainment and engagement colleges provide, some students will continue to struggle. Consequently, it's critical for schools to acknowledge barriers to mental health resources and address these obstacles proactively and efficiently.
One of the most effective things colleges can do is use different communication channels (emails, faculty, texting tools etc.) to promote awareness of existing counseling options, as many students may not know about free mental health services offered and work with the student community to eliminate harmful social stigmas surrounding mental health.
Offering Counseling Options
A great way to maintain contact and work to alleviate additional stressors is to provide counseling. While options may seem limited due to social distancing, there are still a number of ways to facilitate positive experiences that entice upperclassmen to take advantage.
Virtual counseling has been an effective catalyst for improved outcomes in mental health issues among students and the shift to remote services can help to make students more aware of these resources.
Peer-to-peer counseling (which allows students to connect with one another for group therapy) is another great resource for improving outcomes and strengthening ties in the community. Social apps with these peer-to-peer features are becoming increasingly popular on campuses. Not only do they allow students to anonymously express how they’re feeling, but even those who aren’t comfortable with sharing can still find inspiration in reading about how other students have similar struggles.
In addition to facilitating digital interactions among the student community, education institutions can offer low-pressure engagements with faculty and staff as well. One university, SUNY Oswego, is using Zoom to provide drop-in counseling opportunities, casually referred to as “Let’s Talk” sessions.
These free-form, low-commitment engagements give students a chance to reach out to mental health professionals with no strings attached and help to create a comfortable, yet friendly atmosphere around these sensitive conversations.
Students Will Need A New Normal
Although this academic year is unprecedented, there are ways to get students excited about school despite COVID-19 provisions. Online events, socially-distanced get-togethers and virtual social hours are great ways to help students build connections.
Still, it can be difficult to gauge whether your engagement strategies are paying off. To gain a better understanding of areas that students are struggling with, schools can gather pertinent data using tools like conversational AI.
Modern SMS chatbots— powered by groundbreaking AI technologies— can be one of the most accessible platforms for colleges who want to send announcements, share reminders and facilitate higher student engagement as well as garner valuable insight into student needs.
Conversational AI Meets Education
Conversational AI is picking up steam in the education field and for good reason. As a robust, highly-configurable medium for sharing and gathering information, chatbot platforms provide schools with all of the necessary tools they need to keep their finger on the pulse of the student community. What’s more, they’re extremely scalable and intuitive for users, allowing students to interact with their colleges using the same natural language they use on a daily basis. In other words, there’s virtually no learning curve. Getting started is as easy as sending a text to a friend.
Missouri University of Science and Technology is leading the charge with its own chatbot campaign. After partnering with EdSights, the school rolled out a conversational AI messaging campaign for monitoring mental health on campus.
Rather than funneling students through a lengthy, complicated survey, the chatbot enables students to respond to questions such as how they’re doing with their health and wellness with a simple 1 through 5 rating. If students reply with a rating of less than 4, the chatbot responds by further inquiring about these issues— are you feeling stressed? Homesick? Are you struggling with your mental or physical health? With each follow-up question, the school builds a more complete understanding of how they can help their students manage these struggles.
These stories go to show just how powerful the right chatbot— and the right chatbot partner— can be in the world of higher education.
For colleges, EdSights is the ultimate ally for building out conversational AI technologies, with a track record of proven success in schools across the country. By helping institutions more effectively participate in the health and wellness of their college students, EdSights can help to deepen their understanding of the student community. Whether you’re looking to uncover insights about how COVID-19 has disrupted the college experience or better perceive the pandemic effects through students’ eyes, EdSights can help universities and its students build stronger (and healthier) relationships than ever before.