As Virginia Tech and universities around the nation are the enjoying the benefits of an in-person academic year, one aspect of student, staff, and faculty well-being warrants attention: mental health.

“With a return to a more typical academic year in fall 2021, we have opportunities to welcome students, faculty, and staff back to campus with a new awareness and emphasis on mental health services and resources,” said Christopher Flynn, executive director of Mental Health Initiatives at Virginia Tech and co-chair of the VTBetterTogether campaign. “The university needs to be ready to deal both with the mental health consequences of the pandemic and perhaps exaggerated wishes for a ‘normal’ collegiate experience.”

COVID-19 elevated pre-existing issues for vulnerable populations of students, including those in counseling. Students seeing a counselor reported that the pandemic had negative effects on several aspects of their well-being, including:

  • Mental health (59%).
  • Motivation (61%).
  • Loneliness (60%).
  • Academics (59%).
  • Missed experiences or opportunities (54%).
  • Relationships (39%). 

“It is expected that community members will continue to deal with the fallout from the pandemic experience with students both recuperating from some of the challenges noted above and hoping for increased direct contact with peers, faculty, and staff,” said Flynn.

The quick switch to learning in a virtual academic environment meant that for most students, time spent in class declined significantly while time spent doing homework increased by a proportionate amount. Assessment of students in counseling showed measurable increases in academic distress that reflected the challenges of motivation for studying, trouble concentrating, inability to complete work, and lack of enjoyment in classes.  

“There was a significant increase in students who reported that their emotional distress interfered with their academic functioning,” said Flynn.

In the virtual environment learning environment of the past 16 months, the importance of student contact with faculty increased significantly and 11% of Virginia Tech students noted that they discussed their mental health concerns with faculty and academic staff. Of this group, 94% noted their faculty were supportive or very supportive. 

However positive this finding, there have been implications for faculty and academic support staff including advisors and teaching assistants.

Sarah Lipson and colleagues of the Healthy Minds Network examined faculty views of student mental health during the pandemic through a study of 1,685 faculty from 12 colleges and universities. 

In the survey of faculty, Lipson found that:

  • 87% felt that student mental health had worsened during the pandemic.
  • 80% of faculty reported responding to a student with mental health concerns.
  • While 50% reported that they feel able to recognize a student in distress, 21% felt supporting students had a negative impact on their own mental health.
  • 70% of faculty would welcome additional professional development on the topic of student mental health.
  • 58% felt that faculty should receive mandatory basic training in responding to students in distress.
  • Less than 30% of faculty know what resources are available for faculty at their institution.
  • The study went on to report that faculty most commonly cite that they would like:
  • A list of mental health resources available at their institution (73.3%).
  • A list of warning signs of mental and emotional distress (71.0%).
  • A small reference guide on how to initiate a conversation with a student about their mental health (63.2%).
  • A mental health statement to include in their syllabi (62.3%).

“The pandemic has intensified concerns in stark relief and current efforts and trainings for faculty and staff are underway,” said Flynn, noting that the Lipson article provides direction for increased efforts in this area.

Virginia Tech’s mental health professionals in Hokie Wellness and Cook Counseling Center are offering several options for faculty and staff, including:

  • Hokie Health: Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour training in basic skills for providing assistance to those experiencing a mental health challenge. More than 134 participants have taken part in the trainings during spring and summer 2021. More courses will be added throughout the fall semester. Available online or in person. Each participant will receive a certificate and the training can be added to their professional development transcript.
  • Question, Persuade, and Refer (QPR) is a suicide prevention gatekeeper-training program designed to educate our community about suicide and the resources available for those needing professional help. Twenty-four Virginia Tech health professionals are certified to offer this 60-75 minute QPR training to faculty, staff, and student groups, and trainings will be available starting fall semester. Each participant will receive a certificate and the training can be added to their professional development transcript.
  • Hokie Wellness offers an hour-long presentation for students on Helping Friends in Distress and an online guide for employees to recognize and respond to Students in Distress.
  • Hokie Wellness and Cook Counseling Center continue to develop resources for faculty, staff, and students, as does the VTBetterTogether campaign, sponsored by Mental Health Initiatives at Virginia Tech.  

“The primary goal of VTBetterTogether is to bring all of the resources of the Virginia Tech community together to support and enhance the mental health and well-being of every community member,” said Flynn.

This article includes information from:

The Healthy Minds Study 2019-2020 Data Report: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The Healthy Minds Study 2019-2020 Data Report: Virginia Tech COVID follow up.

Center for Collegiate Mental Health: The Effects of COVID on Student Mental Health.

Lipson, Sarah: The Role of Faculty in Student Mental Health.

The Chronicle of Higher Education: How to Help a Student in a Mental-Health Crisis.

Related links:

Mental health initiatives, services to support student wellness continue to progress

Cook Counseling Center ranked No. 1 by Princeton Review

Virginia Tech names executive director of Mental Health Initiatives

Mental health professionals use virtual conversation to encourage rest, good nutrition, and exercise

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