Science Summary Winter 2021

COVID-19’s Impact on Student Wellbeing
A new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP) reports that COVID-19 mitigation protocols like remote learning and stay-at-home orders had a modest, but persistent, impact on mood and wellness behaviors of first-year college students. Surveys were conducted during the Spring 2020 semester at the University of Vermont, with 675 first year students completing a full assessment of behavioral and emotional functioning at the beginning of the semester, and 485 students completed nightly surveys of mood and wellness behaviors on a regular basis before and after the onset of the pandemic. The study observed that students displayed increased levels of behavior and attention problems from the start of the semester-pre-COVID-19-to the end of the semester. However, students’ experiences of the pandemic varied; students with perceived greater personal disruption caused by the pandemic experienced an outsized impact on wellbeing. The results also highlighted differences between students enrolled in UVM’s Wellness Environment (a program that encourages students to make healthier decisions and features educational and residential components) and the general student population. Researchers found that students enrolled in the WE program had improved mood levels and fewer attention problems compared to the non-WE students. Lead author William Copeland, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, said “We suggest that colleges and universities track students’ emotional health and develop specific protocols to support mental health for those that struggle. This study also suggests that wellness programs like UVM’s may increase social support and support student resilience in the face of ongoing disruptions from college life.”

Despite Worsening Mental Health, Students Not Reaching out for Help
Despite numerous sources pointing to a worsening of mental health overall for college students, many are not using the available mental health resources at their colleges. According to a September Active Minds survey of around 2,000 students nationwide, about 75% of students reported that their mental health has declined under the pandemic. Alarmingly, in a CDC survey conducted in June, one in four young people (ages 18-24) reported that they had “seriously considered” suicide in the past 30 days. And according to a survey released by NASPA, while 56 percent of students say they are very or somewhat anxious about the coronavirus pandemic, a majority (77%) have not used mental health support services at their colleges. Many reported turning to parents or friends for help, a result echoed in Active Minds data (in which 66.89% reported an increase in supporting others with their mental wellness.) The NASPA survey of 3,500 undergraduate students also found that about one third were not sure what mental health resources were offered by their college.

Increasing Concern among College Presidents
​The latest Pulse Point survey from the American Council on Education showed that college and university leaders are increasingly concerned about the mental health of their students amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In the survey of 268 college and university presidents, nearly 70 percent of presidents identified student mental health as among their most pressing issues. In the previous iteration of the survey, released in October, only 53 percent identified it as among the most pressing issues. Over 66 percent of all presidents reported an increase in the utilization of mental health services due to COVID-19. Many are implementing different strategies to support the mental health and well-being of their campus community. For example, 59 percent reported that their institutions have “invested in virtual or tele-therapy services” and about 30% reported examining their institution’s policies, programs and systems that support mental health. ACE also recently released a mental health guidebook for leaders thinking about ways to promote and foster positive mental health and wellbeing, highlighting what institutions should consider when convening mental health task forces. In Mental Health Task Forces in Higher Education, researchers Hollie M. Chessman, Darsella Vigil, and Maria Claudia Soler analyzed 16 task force reports from 15 institutions in the last 10 years, categorizing all 469 recommendations contained within those reports into the three themes: focus on the overall campus culture and climate, improve access to services and support for mental health, and make administrative improvements that are long-term and sustainable, requiring changes to policies, protocols, and procedures.

New Framework for Wellbeing
In a new paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Center for Healthy Minds at University of Wisconsin Madison introduce a new evidence-based framework for emotional wellbeing that focuses on specific, learnable skills and practices. The plasticity of well-being: A training-based framework for the cultivation of human flourishing, by Cortland Dahl, Christy Wilson-Mendenhall, and Richard Davidson highlights the four core dimensions of wellbeing: awareness (or attentiveness to one’s environment and internal cues), connection (or a sense of care toward others) insight (referring to self-knowledge), and purpose (as in understanding one’s own values and motivation), and identifies ways to develop wellness along each of these dimensions. The researchers say this framework does not replace previous wellbeing theories but focuses only on aspects that have been shown to improve with practice in daily life. Research projects at the Center for Healthy Minds and UW-Madison are currently using the framework to promote wellbeing, showing promise.

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