Students Will Return to Campus Traumatized—Universities Need to Be Prepared | Opinion

During my final class of the semester, my parting words to my students were not about academics. I wanted them to know two things. First, I told them that I wouldn't stop being their teacher when the proverbial bell rang. I encouraged them to keep in touch with me and their other professors and to let us know how they were doing.

Second, I asked them to please avail themselves of campus mental health resources over the summer. I hope they do, and I hope my university and others around the country are prepared for the lasting psychological impact on our students of the COVID-19 pandemic and a turbulent summer of police violence and anti-racist activism.

College students have experienced a collective mass trauma since the onset of COVID-19. Millions left for spring break in March only to be told that they could not return to campus and would need to finish out the semester online. Many scrambled to access textbooks, laptops, and broadband strong enough to hold a video connection as they returned to their childhood bedrooms or secured makeshift housing. As professors attempted to learn how to unmute ourselves over Zoom, many of our students faced terrifying uncertainty as they lost their jobs and dealt with unsafe living situations.

Yes, nearly everyone in the U.S. has experienced some form of COVID-related trauma, but college students are a particularly high-risk group. According to a recent study by the American Psychological Association conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than a third of first-year college students in several industrialized countries, including the U.S., reported symptoms of a diagnosable mental health disorder. In a 2018 study from the American College Health Association, 62 percent of students reported overwhelming anxiety during the previous 12 months, and 41 percent reported being too depressed to function. Seven percent of students reported self-harm during the previous 12 months, and 11 percent reported seriously considering suicide.

Given this baseline of precarious mental health even before the pandemic, I was worried about my undergraduate students. Even viewing them through blurry webcams, it was clear they were not okay. Many were, and continue to be, isolated and scared. They self-reported feeling depression and anxiety. Some lost family members to the virus. Some were essential workers, stocking grocery shelves and dealing with irate customers while worrying about their own safety.

My role for the second half of this semester was about 30 percent online instructor and 70 percent unlicensed social worker. Untrained in online instruction except for the most basic Zoom features, I held my small classes via video chat at the request of my students, a tight-knit cohort who admitted that they came to class mostly to see each other. My online classroom became less a place to discuss readings and more a place of communal support where Zoom windows were shared with dogs and babies.

Now, without their classes and professors offering structure and support, I worry about my students' mental health as they head into summer. While my students at UT Austin have access to teletherapy services over the summer from our campus counseling and mental health center, students at many universities do not. One reason for this is issues with interstate telehealth and licensing regulations.

Yet trauma does not pause for summer vacation. Universities should recognize that summer is a time when already-troubled students at great risk of having their mental health devolve even further, and they should be proactive about offering mental health supports over the summer. These supports are especially vital in this particular summer in which over 100,000 people are dead from a pandemic and the world is on fire protesting racism and police violence.

Universities must not only have services available, but also advertise them widely and use student advisors to establish social and cultural peer norms around seeking mental health support. If their own counseling services are not available, universities should inform students of free mental health services that they can access over the phone or online.

The traumatic effects of this time will not disappear when we come back to school in the fall, whether in person or online. So just as colleges and universities should act to prioritize accessible and culturally competent approaches to mental health throughout the summer, they should also be bolstering mental health supports for when students return to school. Campuses must pay special attention to the mental health needs of Black students, who have been particularly drained this summer as they witnessed the police murder George Floyd and the government teargas peaceful protestors.

Universities are already spending tremendous resources on students' physical well-being. As they weigh whether to reopen in the fall, schools have convened working groups to assess everything from rapid testing for COVID-19 to ventilation systems in dorms to seating patterns in stadiums. These conversations should also consider students' mental well-being. Universities should be increasing access to in-person and telemedicine therapy, training residential life staff on crisis referrals, and educating faculty on trauma-informed teaching.

Campaigns to maintain social distancing should go hand-in-hand with campaigns to maintain mental health and reduce stigma around seeking support. Students must know that their universities value their mental health and wellness, and mental health resources should be well-documented and publicized widely.

Whether our classrooms this fall are virtual or with desks spaced six feet apart, the students who enter them will have lived through several months of sustained trauma. We cannot return to life on campus without recognizing that an increased level of mental health support will be a crucial part of the new normal for a long time to come.

Sara Simons, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor of Instruction at UT Austin and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​