How to help students struggling with pandemic-related stress


By Cheryl Meyer

As the third year of the pandemic dawns, campuses worldwide remain closed or offer hybrid classes. This is leaving many students feeling isolated, anxious, and depressed and struggling to cope with coursework, adult independence, and life in general.

Most universities operate health and wellbeing centres, but professors in regular contact with students may be the first to recognise warning signs and question students who are falling behind or missing classes.

“With the pandemic and lockdowns, academics have had to pivot from traditional models of face-to-face delivery to online instruction,” said Wen Li Chan, an assistant professor at the Nottingham University Business School Malaysia and a certified Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) trained to identify, understand, and respond to mental health issues. “Apart from this, we’ve also had to bear in mind that our students, who are learning from home during such unprecedented times, could well be facing varying levels of stress and anxiety, and being physically isolated can make it challenging for them to reach out for advice or assistance.

“Prolonged social isolation and lack of social interactions and contact can adversely affect physical and emotional health,” Chan added. She is also a member of the research group SUPREMA (Suicide Prevention Research Malaysia). Chan said her country has seen an uptick in suicide cases since the pandemic hit.

Students’ pandemic-related mental health issues are widespread.

A 2021 UK study by British organisation Student Minds found that more than half of the students surveyed (53%) said they experienced issues such as anxiety, eating disorders, and depression, and 69% said they worried about their family and friends catching COVID-19 or had trouble keeping up with study commitments.

Mental health issues are also impacting post-graduate students who are studying at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), said Leyton Ramskill, lead manager of relationship programs at AICPA and CIMA, in London. In a mid-2021 student survey conducted by CIMA, 24% of responding students said that COVID-19 had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing, while 33% said they didn’t have enough time to study. In response to these findings, CIMA launched an online planner late last year to help those studying for the CIMA qualification reduce stress, improve their time management, and take better care of themselves. The site, available to the public, includes helpful mental health-focused articles, insights, and guidance.

“It is a worrying time for students’ health and wellbeing," said Ramskill, also a certified MHFA. “We don’t want to be counsellors, but what we can do is help students study better and not get stressed with the volumes of work they need to do.”

Leena Huovinen, a work counsellor, Lutheran pastor, and chaplain at the University of Helsinki, reported that students in Finland have similar problems.

“We have a student health centre and it’s fully booked,” Huovinen said. With student health counsellors often overwhelmed, and faculty at the University of Helsinki not always aware of issues, “many students who are feeling bad or are not in good shape mentally have to find a way out by themselves.”

How to address student mental health concerns

So, what can faculty members do to help students cope and to address potential mental health issues? Ramskill, Chan, and Huovinen offered the following tips:

Dispel the myth. Faculty may be afraid to reach out to students facing mental health concerns, for fear they could say something wrong and worsen the situation, Chan said. But the act of simply reaching out could be a life-saver.

“A common myth about suicide is that talking about suicide or asking someone if they feel suicidal will encourage suicide attempts,” she said. “This is not true; in fact, talking about suicide provides an opportunity for communication, and giving someone a chance to talk about their problems and feelings can be an encouragement for them to take the first step toward getting the help they need.”

Outline support on day one. Faculty should familiarise themselves with university mental health services, chaplains, and coaches and advise students early on where to go should issues arise. The University of Helsinki, for instance, shows videos to students during orientation, which helps them to get to know the chaplain before classes start, Huovinen said. Also, faculty should mention all available resources at the beginning of school.

In addition, “the university’s health/wellbeing service is a good resource for academics in the event they feel unsure as to how to proceed with advising a student in need,” Chan said. “Let students know their options.”

Faculty should also communicate that they are “open to conversations about mental health and wellbeing” should students need to talk, and they should explain that students need not feel ashamed if they need help, Chan said.

Lend a listening ear. Professors should take time to get to know students so that students will feel comfortable having a candid conversation if issues arise. With remote learning this can be difficult, but it’s vital that students believe they matter as individuals. 

“Be an ear for them,” Ramskill said. “You don’t have to be a counsellor, but listen to their concerns and let them know that you care.” Most students who are distressed are desperate to express emotions to someone willing to listen in a nonjudgemental way, Chan said.

Faculty should also communicate that they are “open to conversations about mental health and wellbeing” should students need to talk, and they should explain that students need not feel ashamed if they need help, he added.

Establish checkpoints. At various times during the semester, check in with students to gauge how things are going. Have individual conversations with each student and ask them simple questions, such as, “How are you doing? How do you feel?” Huovinen said. “Be a friend.”

Take care of yourself. Professors may feel exhausted from their coursework or after helping students in need. So, Chan advised, exercise, talk with others for support, or simply relax. “Do things which you know are helpful to improve your own mood and mental health,” she said.

Become a mental health first aider. Many organisations worldwide offer “Mental Health First Aid” training for those who want to be educated in mental health awareness. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing and St. John Ambulance in England, for instance, provide courses that can help faculty and others identify, understand, and respond better to mental health issues. In the US, faculty can receive similar training at organisations like North Range Behavioral Health in Colorado or the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. Faculty worldwide can also visit the Mental Health First Aid International website to find training providers in their area.

While this training does not make one a professional counsellor, “MHFAs are taught about the symptoms, risk factors, and warning signs of common mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, as well as given training to provide initial assistance to people who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviours,” Chan said.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.