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Students returning to college campuses this fall may experience a transition similar to what astronauts go through when they return to Earth after a mission in outer space. The shift can be dramatic, even after a short trip. The longer the mission, the longer it takes to reacclimate.

“Like we’ve been on this really long flight into outer space, sometimes it feels like we’ve just been in another universe,” said Kim Hirabayashi, a professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.

The long journey of the coronavirus pandemic took students through dimensions of online learning, social isolation, economic anguish, personal loss and mass grief. It resulted in psychological distress for many. 

“We should really be prepared to address the emotional nature of reentry as we work towards supporting the well-being of our students and our colleagues, and ourselves. I don’t think we should expect business as usual.”

Kim Hirabayashi, professor of clinical education, University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education

That distress can take the form of burnout, which appears to be increasing. At Ohio State, the number of students reporting feelings of burnout leapt 31 percentage points during the last academic year — from 40 percent of students in August 2020 to 71 percent in April, according to a university study. The report also found marked increases in anxiety, depression and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance use, lack of physical activity and social isolation over the eight-month period. Researchers plan to survey students again this fall. 

Their findings aligned with the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America study: Gen Z adults ages 18 to 23 reported significantly higher stress levels than other generations. Of the Gen Z adults who said they are in college, 87% said their education was a significant source of stress, and stress is often linked to burnout. The association describes burnout as “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others.” Hirabayashi said it’s often used as a catchall term, but ultimately it means, “the opposite of thriving.”

Related: Nonwhite students slow to seek mental health counseling for which they’re more in need

But not all students were affected in the same way.

Broken down by student demographic group, the Ohio State data showed that Hispanic students were experiencing the highest levels of anxiety and depression. Black students reported the second highest levels, slightly higher than their white counterparts. Students who identified as Asian or Pacific Islander reported the lowest levels of anxiety and depression.

Sara Gorman, the director of research and knowledge dissemination at the JED Foundation, which focuses on young adult mental health, said students of color, LGBTQ+ students and student parents are all known to struggle with mental health challenges, including not feeling a sense of belonging and struggling to develop strong social connections when they are in a minority group on campus. 

These issues are exacerbated when counseling staff doesn’t reflect the diversity of these student groups, she said, or lacks expertise in issues such as gender and sexuality or the cultural knowledge needed to help students navigate their personal and mental health struggles.

Related: How one community college professor goes beyond the call 

In addition to providing mental health services through its counseling center, Ohio State created a mental health checklist for students. The checklist encourages them to establish healthy habits, build healthy coping mechanisms, find local mental health care, grow and maintain their support systems and avoid waiting to get help.

Researchers and staff at other colleges and universities are anticipating an increased need for mental health services this fall.

At the University of Washington, researchers surveyed students in the spring of 2019 and again in spring 2020 (shortly after classes had transitioned to online learning), and found similar levels of anxiety and depression. Researchers said that looking at year-to-year averages in student well-being measures masked individual experiences of distress. They surveyed students again this spring and plan to compare the data, but it’s not yet been published.

At the University of Wisconsin, administrators are acknowledging the mental health difficulties of the pandemic year by urging first- and second-year students to establish healthy coping mechanisms and participate in a 30-day meditation challenge through the Healthy Minds Innovations app (which does not connect students with therapists). 

Other schools use apps that do connect students to therapists, such as the Mantra Health app offered at the St. Petersburg College system in Florida. The network of 11 community colleges doesn’t have a physical mental health counseling center. It had previously contracted with local mental health providers to grant students three free therapy sessions, but Misty Kemp, the college’s director of retention, said the service was rarely used. She said many more students have already taken advantage of the teletherapy option.

Gorman of the JED Foundation warned against overreliance on apps for mental health support. She said she worries about the lack of efficacy research and said there is no replacement for therapy.

Related: Nation’s skeletal school mental health network will be severely tested

Though the return to campus may require therapy for some, it’s going to require patience and empathy for all, Hirabayashi said. 

She recommended acknowledging the stress and trauma that both students and faculty may have experienced, and the range of emotions they likely have about returning. 

It’s more important than ever for faculty to be open with students about the importance of seeking mental health help, Hirabayashi said.

She urged faculty to plan for regular check-ins; take any opportunity to foster social connectedness among students and the broader campus community; and continue to use online course components like Zoom office hours to allows students uncomfortable with in-person contact to still participate and engage fully.

“We should really be prepared to address the emotional nature of reentry as we work towards supporting the well-being of our students and our colleagues, and ourselves,” Hirabayashi said. “I don’t think we should expect business as usual.”

This story about college student mental health was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter. 

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  1. I am on alert for this but it could be difficult to assess students mental sttates, especially if one is teaching in a department that has been surreptitiously dumb down its curriculum to reduce the legitimate teaching loads of instructors more concerned with their off campus ($$$) enterprises and the students are under pressure to graduate on time. Plus, students who are the ones who need special attention are not the most forthcoming on this. Under pressure to take more credits than they can really handle, they hope (and finagling can be involved ) that instructors will avert their eyes to what is going on.

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