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I recently met (over Zoom) with a dozen first-year students to hear how their semester at Barnard College was going.

Although they reported being engaged in their classes (something every college president likes to hear), words like uneasy, concerned, unsure and anxious popped up frequently as we talked.

Barnard women are not alone in their struggles. An analysis of Twitter sentiment designed to uncover the state of public mental health tracked similar words and phrases, suggesting rates of anxiety, stress and depression this spring were significantly higher than at the same time in 2019.

It seems easy to blame global events for these feelings. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 75 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 report poor mental or behavioral health associated with the pandemic.

Other surveys confirm the prevalence of stress during this time. Some 79 percent of Generation Z adults (ages 18 to 23) in the U.S. say the future of our nation is a significant source of stress in their lives, while climate change alone makes 57 percent of American teens feel afraid.

The disruption of normal routines, such as the return to college campuses, has caused 46 percent of young people to report a lack of purpose as a driving factor behind their increase in anxiety. 

Psychology research shows that uncertainty itself is often the real driver behind rising anxiety. It’s not so much the actual events that cause us to feel panic, but the “what ifs” that swirl around them.

However, psychology research shows that uncertainty itself is often the real driver behind rising anxiety. It’s not so much the actual events that cause us to feel panic, but the “what ifs” that swirl around them.

My own research has shown that when people are afraid of math, neural alarm signals go off in the brain before a math test — not during or after. Our anxiety comes from our worries about what might or could happen. 

This seems especially true for young people. They haven’t lived through similar experiences they can draw upon for context. That’s why seeing uncertainty for what it is, even during these unprecedented times, can prove challenging.

It’s one of the reasons that exposure therapy has proven to be particularly effective for young people dealing with anxiety, as it forces them to experience the outcomes of the events they fear, to show that the likely outcome probably isn’t the thing they’ve been worrying about.

Related: Opinion: Anxiety and depression among students have become central issues, and not all young people are affected equally

The good news is that easing the “what ifs” for young adults is higher education’s forte — we provide historical context and new ways of thinking about the world, statistical likelihood and probable outcomes.

Colleges should be helping and encouraging faculty to find ways to provide students the context they need to bring a greater sense of control to the otherwise unprecedented events we’re living through. The best way to combat “what ifs” is through knowledge of what is likely to happen.

The bad news is that most colleges and universities aren’t actively approaching their teaching this way in 2020. Presidents and chancellors are instead singularly focused on the unknowns surrounding this year: Will it be safe to open campus, can we keep campus open, how do we stop students from socializing?

Naturally, this narrow focus does more to contribute to uncertainty than to alleviate it.

At Barnard, while we’ve made the decision to operate fully remotely this semester, adapting courses across our curriculum to meet the current moment — such as a microbiology course focusing solely on the novel coronavirus, a course on the history of care work, and an environmental science course that helps students apply scientific inquiry to the ecosystems of their hometowns.

All first-year students are also taking a new course titled  Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020, which pushes students to consider what the Covid-19 pandemic, anti-Black violence and other recent events reveal about scientific knowledge, existing power structures, historical value systems, and the ways in which institutions can produce and reinforce inequity. Discussions in these courses are oftentimes uncomfortable, which is OK, but we are getting better at having them every day. Giving students experience reasoning through challenging topics helps to hone whatever point of view they hold and — hopefully — equips them to better continue difficult discussions outside the classroom.    

We’ve also launched a new initiative called ThirdSpace@, which unites students with faculty and real-world practitioners to create change. A seminal 2019 report on Gen Z’s penchant for activism found that nearly three-quarters of those in this post-millennial group believe being politically engaged is a critical piece of their identity.

Yet 55 percent said they felt unable to participate in political or social justice causes because they didn’t know whom to contact or which groups to support. ThirdSpace@ was designed to meet this need, giving students the tools and guidance to effectively contribute to existing civic structures built around the biggest challenges we face today. 

At a time when the majority of headlines about colleges deal with tracking the number of Covid cases, it’s ironic that we are missing a really important part of student safety. 

It isn’t just about tracking fevers; it’s also about a serious examination of how we arm students with the resources they need to safeguard their mental health at this time. 

Students already face so many uncertainties. Colleges are perfectly positioned to use their treasure trove of knowledge to give students the tools they need to feel stronger and more comfortable in the face of these uncertain times.

Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist, is president of Barnard College at Columbia University.

This Op-Ed about student mental health during the pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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A cognitive scientist, Sian Beilock is president of Barnard College in New York City.

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