Mental Health in Academia During the COVID Pandemic

Spectra Feature
February 4, 2021

The Spring of 2020 was a period of stress and uncertainty for most humans. Staff, faculty, and students in higher education were no exception. Colleges and universities across the United States were forced to act (sometimes swiftly, sometimes with extreme reluctance) as on-ground, face-to-face coursework and advising became untenable. With these unanticipated changes came prolonged, extreme periods of stress that continue to impact mental health among teachers and learners. 

This is not the first time that American higher education has been significantly affected by a public health concern. The 1918 flu pandemic resulted in mask and quarantine policies akin to those seen at universities during the ongoing COVID pandemic. Also similar was the level of opposition and skepticism held by some regarding policies that limited travel, restricted socializing, and undermined individual autonomy. During the 1918 flu outbreak, students were fined for attempting to attend classes without wearing their required masks. University records also indicate that some campuses faced higher levels of infection when student populations were unwilling or unable to comply with newly implemented health requirements. Earlier, across the Atlantic, the Great Plague of London (1665) resulted in students and faculty either preemptively fleeing their universities or, for the brave, preparing bugout bags as part of their escape plans for if the plague were to spread. 

In these and other historical instances of widespread illness, maintaining traditional, on-campus instruction was the only option. When on-ground instruction and advising became untenable, most schools paused or minimized operations until they could safely reopen. During the 1918 flu, of course, holding synchronous, remote courses was unfathomable. And in that pre-digital age, even correspondence-based coursework was determined to be non-viable for most institutions. One of the reasons that correspondence-based study failed at that time was that postal clerks and carriers reportedly were among the most likely Americans to become infected and were often unable to conduct normal business operations. 

...the sudden need to move nearly all on-ground instruction to alternative, online formats left many within higher education wondering how to adapt.

Whereas previous pandemics left administrators with few alternative modes of instruction and student engagement, digital technologies have made responses to COVID a question of modality, not of operational continuity. However, while online education was already widely practiced across the United States, the sudden need to move nearly all on-ground instruction to alternative, online formats left many within higher education wondering how to adapt. 

COVID, Decision Making, and Modalities

Future histories of COVID’s impact on higher education will be just as insufficient as those chronicling the impact of the 1918 flu. The personal and long-term implications of 2020’s rapid changes within academia are impossible to fully quantify. However, early indications of structural and pedagogical changes in higher education, made in our shared moment of krisis, point toward a common and ongoing belief that academies can and should operate as a nexus of learning, collaboration, and community. It is through this last component – community – that questions of student mental health are best explored. 

Many institutional efforts to maintain some semblance of normalcy during the 2020 calendar year focused on student needs that extend beyond classroom instruction. Many of our responses to heightened levels of uncertainty and apprehension stemming from COVID demonstrate the need and desire of faculty and staff to empathize with and grant leniency to students. Many students have found themselves facing harsh, uncomfortable realities as their families struggle with crises that are both deeply personal and systemic. Students’ need for empathy from those working within higher education is symptomatic of larger, more systemic needs – for shelter, support, and interpersonal compassion as we each face the pandemic’s personal, structural, social, financial, external, and internal impacts. These needs are not new, but they have been exacerbated in 2020. 

In addition to moving coursework online, many universities have moved toward mental health services online or over the phone to meet student needs.

Unfortunately, the necessary shift to online learning and communication has forced many students to operate in new, unanticipated modalities. In addition to moving coursework online, many universities have moved toward mental health services online or over the phone to meet student needs. These shifts were minimal for students already attending online courses, but for those who were familiar only with on-ground, face-to-face learning, the shift to screen-based engagement with their educators, advisers, and healthcare resources represented a significant disruption that even the most well-prepared and resourceful institutions could not fully predict or mitigate. 

Mental Health in Academia

What are we to expect from students during these times? Should faculty maintain their standard course expectations or modify their grading, instruction, and responsiveness to counterbalance the difficulties faced by students in their non-academic lives? Should administrators work to waive fees, fines, and deadlines? Or, should we work to maintain academia as a realm of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic world? Faced with a rapidly evolving situation, individuals and institutions have each implemented their own approaches to these concerns. There appears to be no coherent, widespread philosophy regarding how best to maintain standards of excellence while simultaneously caring for students’ mental health. Histories of pandemic responses within academia have recently regained popularity and might offer some pathways forward, though they are equally likely to reinforce problematic notions of productivity in the face of adversity. 

In the summer of 1665, a young Isaac Newton, along with many of his fellow students, fled Cambridge to reside in the countryside to escape the bubonic plague that had already killed thousands and would ultimately result in a 15 percent mortality rate in London. This period of self-guided learning would later become known as Newton’s “Year of Wonders,” during which he developed pioneering ideas related to mathematics and philosophy. Many recent analyses have suggested this “making the best of a bad situation” as a pathway forward for students struggling with their place in academia during COVID. In March 2020, the Washington Post’s Gillian Brockell wrote a blog post entitled “During a pandemic, Isaac Newton had to work from home, too. He used the time wisely.” The author concludes the post with this advice for the reader: “So if you’re working or studying from home over the next few weeks, perhaps remember the example Newton set. Having time to muse and experiment in unstructured comfort proved life-changing for him — and no one remembers whether he made it out of his pajamas before noon.” 

This romantic appeal to emulate Newton’s time away from campus may only exacerbate the ongoing sense of distress that is evident among today’s students, faculty, and staff. While Newton was able to escape to his childhood home, where he was greeted by private lands and comfortable accommodations, many students and faculty now find themselves conducting coursework from relatively sparse environs. Classes are now attended (and sometimes taught) at dining room tables, in makeshift home offices, and in cramped corners, depending on where the best Wi-Fi signal can be found. While some might have ample space and time to conduct their work in this new, socially distant environment, others face a litany of logistical and technical hurdles that can leave them feeling exhausted, alone, and hopeless as they continue to spend tens of thousands of dollars on tuition. 

Given the crises that students continue to face during the COVID pandemic, we might expect mental health funding and staffing across academia to increase. However, a study of 998 institutions of higher education conducted by the American College Health Association in August 2020 found that “In counseling and mental health services, only 15.5% report that they expect to hire staff, while the same number of schools expect staff reductions.” This, despite growing evidence that maintaining a focus on student well-being is critically important, leaves many in higher education with precious few pathways forward to ensure the short- and long-term safety and well-being of their students. 

Few Options, Fewer Solutions

Knowing whether and how to correspond with students regarding their mental health during the COVID pandemic is an ongoing question. While many higher education institutions have worked to meet their students’ needs, others either cannot afford to make systemic accommodations or are unwilling to disrupt normal operating procedures. Writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson reported on a Fall 2020 survey showing that many universities face severe and long-term financial crises stemming from decreased tuition revenue and costs incurred from implementation of COVID safety precautions. And, the full financial impact of COVID has not yet been realized. As one example, administrators at many state institutions fear that legislatures will make significant cuts in state funding of institutions to offset other governmental expenses incurred during the pandemic.

Finances should never be the central concern of any institution of higher education – we are not and should never be considered a business. At the same time, the lights must turn on tomorrow, and employees must be paid. Administrators are faced with many difficult choices as they work to safeguard the short- and long-term financial well-being of their institutions while also attempting to facilitate compassionate, safe, and appropriate operations. This friction between budget and compassion is unlikely to abate even after COVID has ceased to be a daily concern. 

In response to ongoing crises, many institutions have rapidly transitioned to alternative pedagogical modalities. American higher education was already well on its way to accepting online learning as a complementary method of facilitating classroom instruction and advising prior to the COVID pandemic. Survey data from Inside Higher Ed indicates that in 2019, 46 percent of polled faculty had taught online (compared with 30 percent six years earlier). However, in March 2020 (the same month when many institutions moved online), the Educause Center for Analysis and Research reported that 70 percent of undergraduates preferred learning in in-person environments. When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID a pandemic in March 2020, the need to move courses online was already evident, though data show that discomfort with this sudden, forced transition had significant, detrimental effects on many students’ well-being. 

Coupled with moving their educational offerings either partially or entirely online, institutions have sought, when able, to expand student mental health services and accommodations while maintaining standard operation procedures and academic standards. Institutions that already had extensive mental health services, such as Johns Hopkins University (JHU), have worked to increase awareness and breadth of these resources. JHU regularly emails the campus community with reminders and updates on services ranging from 24/7 counseling, to telehealth and meditation sessions. Similarly, institutions such as The City University of New York (CUNY) have sought to rapidly expand and enhance their mental health resources. CUNY announced in October 2020 that they had allocated $5 million to train staff and reach more students through teletherapy. 

Meanwhile, institutions with fewer resources have worked admirably to foster a healthy and supportive mental health services structure. Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC), the largest community college in Pennsylvania, had eliminated on-campus mental health services in 2019 (a decision that was quickly reversed following public outcry). As of January 2021, HACC now hosts a robust website detailing both in-house resources and partnerships with organizations that are focused on student mental health, food security, childcare, and many other resources. A similar refocusing toward student wellness can be found at institutions across the country that are struggling to meet student needs while confronting administrative and financial constraints. 

The need for diverse, adaptive, and innovative mental health services for our students is well-documented. According to the CDC, 18- to 24-year-olds have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID pandemic, with one in four individuals within this range having indicated serious contemplations of suicide in June of 2020. This population was also the most likely to start or increase substance use as a response to pandemic-related stress. Additionally, 74.9 percent of respondents in the 18- to 24-year-old age range reported one or more adverse mental or behavioral health symptoms. This population, which includes the majority of undergraduate students, faces an unprecedented need for mental health support. Simultaneously, Greta Anderson reports for Inside Higher Ed that many pre-existing, systemic issues in higher education’s mental health support systems, including long waits and insufficient staffing, have not been solved to meet this increased student need. 

Taking these data into account, Newton’s “Year of Wonders” remains an unsuitable model for many as they face a litany of extenuating factors that would prevent such free-spirited exploration. Unfortunately, many students would likely benefit from time away from their studies. Many have cited unfamiliarity or dislike of online education and external crises as reasonable limitations to their continued enrollment during COVID. Sadly, these students are often left with little option but to continue their coursework, even if a leave of absence would be a far better option. With safe and reliable employment difficult to find, many students are continuing their education by necessity, rather than desire.  

Moving Toward Sustainable Mental Health 

The ongoing COVID pandemic has not (yet) provoked revolutionary pedagogical innovations. Rather, it has spurred a more rapid and holistic adoption of multi-modal best practices that might otherwise have taken years, if not decades, for broad implementation. These rapid, sometimes chaotic transitions have had unforeseen mental health consequences. However, with vaccination programs and a better understanding of COVID’s transmission vectors comes hope that some semblance of normalcy might return to higher education. 

While optimism is a powerful ally when seeking to alleviate stress and feelings of despair, the continued crises faced by everyone within higher education should not be ignored. Determining which changes in higher education resulted in increased mental health crises during the COVID pandemic will be an ongoing process for years to come. COVID and its impact on mental health will likely be analyzed through lenses including neoliberalism, critiques of higher education, and indictments of online learning. These and other forthcoming analyses will reflect how our shared experiences in 2020 have informed, shaped, altered, and reinforced perspectives on how academia should attend to and ensure mental health across both digital and physical campuses. 

Ultimately, these concerns are not intrinsically academic, but social. Last summer the New York Times’ Ellen Rosen reported that one rare “silver lining” of the COVID pandemic was an increased focus on the need for accessible mental health resources both within and outside of academia. Rosen reports that many entrepreneurs are now exploring the potential for start-up companies that can resolve long-standing issues in mental healthcare, and that an increased attention toward mental health needs has been spurred by the increased needs during COVID. While improvements and expansion of mental health resources will take years to fully matriculate, a social shift toward larger acceptance of and access to mental healthcare is an early, potential ray of hope for many who have struggled in the past year. 

Increased awareness of the need for a stronger focus on holistic wellness is one of many steps we can take toward a kinder, more sustainable standard of personal and social well-being. Whether heightened attention to the need for more sustainable approaches to mental health will be long-lasting or a mere flash in the pan is unknown, but the increased attention is both promising and a troubling sign for how modality, policy, and pedagogy impact the well-being of our students, faculty, and administrators. 




TAYLOR HAHN is a Senior Lecturer and the Director of the Communication program at Johns Hopkins University. Hahn’s areas of research include argument, debate, and the roles and trajectories of higher education in contemporary society. He previously served as Director of Civic Engagement at the Ben Franklin Transatlantic Fellows Institute, a U.S. State Department program focused on debate training and civic engagement. Hahn earned his Ph.D. in 2016 from the University of Pittsburgh.