When asking Biddy Martin about college student mental health and wellbeing, it is clear she has thought a great deal about it. One of the top concerns in her remaining months as president of Amherst College is how the trauma and losses of COVID-19 have affected students’ ability to thrive. Her concern that the pandemic has re-exposed and widened divides in wealth, health outcomes, and political perspective reveals her related passion for social justice.
Martin is well known for having helped make the prestigious school in Massachusetts’ Connecticut River Valley one of the most diverse of the “elites,” increasing the representation of first-generation students and students of color in the student body. (The latter group made up the majority of last year’s entering class.) So earnest is she about the importance of inclusion and belonging, among other social determinants of wellbeing, it is not surprising to learn she speaks from experience.
Martin’s journey from modest roots in then-rural Virginia to the provost’s office at Cornell and the corner offices of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then Amherst led to the pronouncement she now shares with others that “education frees us to be who we have the potential to be,” often in spite of other people’s expectations of us. The personal growth and opportunity she experienced through college and graduate school make her an authentic advocate for the role higher education can play in extending opportunity, shaping lives, and creating engaged citizens.
As she prepares to leave Amherst at the end of this academic year, Martin reflects on how higher education affects college students’ mental health and wellbeing, the people they will become, and the country we live in. Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
MCI: What are your thoughts on college student mental health, at large, at this point in time?
BM: This moment is unique. It was already true that mental health was on the rise as a problem among college-aged young people. They are now dealing with the pandemic and the constraints it has required, while also facing the growing effects of climate change, deep and hostile political divisions, stark inequalities in income and wealth, and overt, sometimes violent, forms of prejudice and hatred. Students have understandable reasons for anxiety and they need to be supported in finding sources of hope and connection. I think we have built a trusted, but not yet fully staffed counseling center at Amherst, and that’s critical; but right now we struggle, as do other institutions, to hire and retain enough counselors and to provide more scaffolding on the front end so students can build their own rich social worlds together. What’s needed in this moment is a comprehensive public health-informed set of plans that acknowledge the challenges and provide students with access to the full range of supports and activities that we know affect wellbeing. Having lost time and opportunity over the past two years, many also need help making up for the social and emotional growth that isolation has slowed. They have grown up on social media and have spent countless hours online, staring at screens during the pandemic. All these factors have the potential to distort what it means to connect with other people and to share the impact of such a difficult experience.
“An environment in which political conflict crowds out listening and understanding cannot be conducive to good mental health or genuine connection.”
A psychiatrist friend recently emphasized the importance to our mental health of a sense of solidarity with others, the feeling that we are all in this together. That feeling is not readily available when division has been stoked to the degree it has on the national stage, when we’re not able even to recognize or avow a shared reality. Students are in college to learn how to think well, to reason, to seek and assess evidence, and to learn how to understand and solve problems using different methods and perspectives. The faculties’ high expectations of them also give them a sense of their ability to learn, to rise to challenges. But faculty members have also had to adapt how they teach and be flexible in some of their expectations for the pace at which students can be expected to do the work. We are living in a world where the keys to a sense of physical health, psychological wellbeing, and community are lacking.
MCI: Students have been reporting increasing rates of anxiety and stress even before the pandemic. There are many theories as to why, but do you think colleges and universities are putting too much pressure on them?
BM: I think our society puts too much pressure on them, at too early an age, to succeed, even to be the best at everything; they are under pressure to perform at the highest levels academically and in other activities so they can get into “the best colleges or universities.” In truth, this country has one of the best higher education systems in the world, because it is not a system, strictly speaking. There are many colleges and universities—public and private—that offer a great education, making the race to gain admission to one of a very few colleges and universities harmful to all our youth, and also to our institutions. Once in college, many students feel pressure to build their resumes and their social capital in order to gain admission to the best graduate and medical schools or to secure the best or most lucrative jobs.
Liberal arts education, at its best, encourages students to explore a range of possible intellectual interests, to make lifelong connections with their peers and with their mentors, and to resist pressure to succeed on someone else’s terms. The limits on in-person learning and socializing during COVID and the over-reliance on social media for contact are all part of the recipe for anxiety and depression.
MCI: How do we go about changing that kind of culture so that students understand they have choices that can align with who they are, not just what they could be making? It seems we are very uncreative about all that in this country.
BM: I’m afraid it takes change on a significant scale. College-level study can and does help students see that they may have adopted a very limited definition of a good life. We can all do more to ensure that students acquire what they need for jobs and careers while also experiencing the joy and the creative thinking that come from learning for its own sake. One of my favorite essays about the goals of liberal arts education was written back in the ‘90s by William Cronon, a highly-regarded environmental historian who is now an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In an essay called “Only Connect…,” he writes about the need for a different approach to questions about curricular requirements. Rather than focusing on what disciplines students need to have studied, he names the 10 qualities he sees in the people he most admires and who have had a broad and deep education. I will paraphrase to give you a sense of what those qualities are. The people he admires read widely, drawing on a range of sources and perspectives. They listen and they understand. They enjoy popular culture and also the highest quality work in the arts. They can solve a range of problems using quantitative and qualitative approaches. They can talk with anyone, regardless of the work a person does or their station in life. When they meet another person, they seek to understand what makes that person interesting. In short, they are curious, informed, compassionate critical thinkers. Finally, they realize that freedom and responsibility are inextricably bound up with one another in a democracy and are engaged, informed citizens.
This is a good place to start in thinking about what we value in education and how to promote the conditions for people’s success and their physical and emotional health. An environment in which political conflict crowds out listening and understanding cannot be conducive to good mental health or genuine connection. And, as we are seeing in this now two-year battle with COVID-19, the absence of that sense that we’re all in this together has wreaked havoc.
MCI: What do you think will be the biggest challenge for colleges going forward in regard to student wellbeing?
BM: Given the duration of the intersecting crises we’re experiencing, I think it will take a long time for people to re-establish a sense of security and will be difficult to develop trust in one another. It will be a challenge for faculty, staff, students, and administrators to recognize, acknowledge, and act on the consequences for our students of the crises that have converged at a critical moment in their development. We will all have lost some of our ease in being close, gathering in crowds, making new friends. One of our alumni recently shared an anecdote that he ended by saying, “Hope and connection are the keys to good mental health.” It will be important to create ways of acknowledging and understanding the shared sources of grief and anxiety our students are experiencing and equally important to provide them with opportunities to experience joy and efficacy.
Educational institutions at all levels will need to be intentional about efforts to create more comprehensive and effective approaches to restoring students’ sense of hope and opportunities for connection. We need to build an awareness of the determinants of mental health into the wide range of things we do on campuses.
A sense of fairness is an important part of building a caring community. At Amherst, where we have generous financial aid policies, we continue to identify and, where possible, to cover what can be “hidden costs” that become barriers for students—certain course materials, social opportunities, participation in club or group activities that may require money. We are working to close the gaps that may exclude some students or cause them to exclude themselves from key activities and opportunities, that stand in the way of belonging. Another example of our efforts at Amherst is the guarantee of at least one paid internship for lower-income and first-generation college students who might otherwise be unable to take advantage of an experience that helps other students explore different careers and find a path to jobs. We are fortunate that our alumni have supported these efforts in the generous ways they have.
MCI: Speaking of building community, Amherst has a well-regarded diversity agenda which puts you at the top of your class in this category. What are some of the lessons you can share?
BM: How much richer a community we have by virtue of the diversity! We’ve also had to learn over time, as demographics continue to change, how important critical mass is to enabling students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds to feel they not only belong, but have as much ownership of the future of the culture and the community as any other students. We are continually learning about the things we need to change. The numbers matter, but, obviously, they do not suffice. Changes in culture are crucial, and those changes take time. Listening carefully to students and understanding them is critical, whether that listening takes place in an office hour, a meeting with a student advisory group, or in the course of a student protest, even when we decide that it does not make sense to do all they would have us do.
Our faculty has responded creatively to differences in the preparation students have gotten in their high schools. They have become innovative in their pedagogical approaches over the years to the benefit of all our students.
MCI: Can higher education be more egalitarian? Should this be part of its mission?
BM: Yes, certainly, in some important ways, but not alone – only if the American people and our representatives in local, state, and federal government invest more in education. And only if all our public and private institutions are allowed, even encouraged, to continue identifying, actively recruiting, financially supporting, and educating young people from historically underrepresented groups.
Greater collaboration across institutions, more respect for different paths and vocations, and less focus on brand would serve everyone well. The premium on image negatively affects the mental health of individuals and detracts from the core mission of our educational institutions.