- Maybe initially quarantining university students is indeed the best option from an epidemiological perspective, but it is incomplete without built-in plans for psychological support. Tweet This
- Now more than ever, universities must be proactive about communicating with students about how and when they can access mental health support. Tweet This
As fall approaches, and many parents and students contemplate returning to university campuses, there is a dark and disquieting disregard for the mental health of students as universities prepare for classes amidst the COVID-19 health crisis. Although many schools are reopening across the country, virus mitigation efforts will seriously alter the normal proceedings of ordinary college experience. As universities struggle to confront a constantly changing regulatory environment, the jury is still out as to whether virus containment strategies will be successful in keeping colleges and their surrounding communities safe. Lost in this scramble is due consideration for the mental health of university students, who, even in normal times, report feeling overwhelmed, depressed, and anxious. If anything, the mental health issues associated with some virus containment strategies, such as quarantining students for long periods of time in isolation, seem to be more of an afterthought.
Mental health issues are complicated and complex, and it is easy to brush them aside as secondary to physical health concerns. However, given that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, it is of utmost importance that universities work to support student mental well-being during this challenging moment in history.
Universities vary widely in their re-opening plans, and some strategies are more concerning from a mental health perspective than others. For example, one plan under consideration by several universities—including Dartmouth, Colgate, and others—is to quarantine all incoming students for up to 14 days, often in single-occupancy dorm rooms without any social contact, and feed them with meals delivered to their doors. According to a recent update from Dartmouth, they have revised the quarantine time but still expect all students to remain in their rooms for days and possibly even weeks.
It is irresponsible for universities to enforce strict isolation measures without also constructing well-thought out mental health plans, which are equally important to combatting the effects of COVID-19.
There is intense concern among parents of students who attend universities that are considering such a plan. One parent I treat, whose son will be attending college as a freshman, told me,
I am more concerned about my freshman son’s state of mental health if he is isolated in a single occupancy
room for 14 days. He suffers from anxiety anyway and this will certainly push him over the edge.
Many of these students will have already quarantined with their families for the past 6 months and will be suddenly in a dorm room, alone, not only separated from their loved ones, but also from peers who might give them comfort. It might be that initially quarantining students is indeed the best option from an epidemiological perspective, but it is incomplete without built-in plans for psychological support. As one parent I interviewed asked me, “where are the mental health professionals in this, why aren’t they telling the universities that this is going to increase the mental health issues of the students?”
Another parent commented to me that it is like “sending her freshman daughter into solitary confinement which puts all kids at risk for depression.”
And a different parent asked:
How can they expect our kids to sit in a room without human contact, or the ability to get out and get some air or
some exercise to burn off the stress. It is a formula for not only home sickness and increased anxiety but depression
and even suicidal thoughts and gestures.
One student I interviewed, who will attend the University of Chicago, told me
it would be better if they just shut down completely for one year or went online only with the option of deferring.
This is just going to cause so many more problems to an already overwhelmed mental health treatment situation
on college campuses.
Indeed, 60% of college students say that the pandemic has made it harder to access mental health care, even as the prevalence of depression has increased among them, as Inside Higher Ed recently reported. It is of utmost importance for universities to protect mental health budgets from any COVID-19 related cost-saving measures, which have already contributed to unexpected staff reductions. Furthermore, now more than ever, universities must be proactive about communicating with students about how and when they can access mental health support.
College is a difficult time for many students, especially incoming freshman who are leaving their families for the first time in their lives. This year, health and financial stressors, uncertainty about the future, and lack of socialization will add even more difficulty to this emotionally-draining experience for many students. College is a time for confronting challenges, and this adversity will be an impactful growing experience for many. For some developing minds, the stressors this year will be too much to bear alone. It is irresponsible for universities to enforce strict isolation measures without also constructing well-thought out mental health plans, which are equally important to combatting the effects of COVID-19.
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert and author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. She is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and The Institute for Family Studies.