ACE Members Focus Their Attention on Removing Barriers to Mental Health for Students
June 24, 2021

​​​As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns surrounding mental health on college campuses remain one of the most pressing issues for college and university leaders. 

In March, ACE released its seventh Pulse Point survey conducted over 2020-21. For the fourth time, higher ed leaders reported that student mental health remained their top concern while the majority of those surveyed listed “mental health of faculty and staff” as second. As for students themselves, a survey released by Active Minds in April found that 80 percent of college students believe the pandemic negatively impacted their mental health.

This past December, Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College, appeared on ACE’s dotEDU podcast to discuss the initiatives her institution put in place to combat the mental health challenges on campus.

In partnership with the JED Foundation, Barnard launched the Feel Well, Do Well campaign to emphasize that mental health is not solely the responsibility of the counseling center, but everyone’s obligation, which includes faculty and staff at the liberal arts college.

“For faculty, dining hall workers, everyone [is trained] to know where to send students or how to turn for support,” Beilock explained. “But it happens in all sorts of ways. We started programs last year to talk a lot with our students about what failure looks like. We had a series of dinners called Fail Forward dinners where faculty met with students and talked about all the times they messed up. I think it's so important for our young people to get comfortable with taking risks, with failing, with looking in the wrong direction. It's about equipping them with the skills to get up and pivot when needed.”

Focus on Underserved Students

Students of color and underrepresented groups tend to face additional challenges to their mental and emotional well-being. Research shows that students of color at U.S. colleges and universities are almost twice as likely not to seek care when they feel depressed or anxious compared to white students.

Additionally, a 2017 Harris Poll of 1,000 college students conducted by JED and the Steve Fund (with equal samples of African American, Latinx, white, and Asian American students) found that students of color are significantly less likely than white students to describe their campus as inclusive (28 percent to 45 percent) and more likely to indicate that they often feel isolated on campus (46 percent to 30 percent).

In August 2020, the Illinois Board of Higher Education released a report that found Black student enrollment in the state’s colleges and universities had dropped about 29 percent between 2013 and 2018.

Zaldwaynaka Scott, president of Chicago State University, the only predominantly Black institution in the state, formed a 45-person working group composed of other top administrators at higher education institutions, state and local lawmakers, community nonprofit organizations, and business leaders in Illinois. On May 24, the group released an “Equity Working Group for Black Student Access and Success in Illinois Higher Education” Action Plan.

Mae Matoka, an incoming senior in the honors program at the University of Illinois at Springfield who participated in a student panel for the equity working group, said her biggest concern and focus as a participant on the panel was for colleges and universities to increase quality mental health counseling for Black students. A portion of the equity report offered recommendations for improving the well-being of Black students on campuses, including providing “holistic student supports including trauma-informed, antiracist mental health services for Black students on campus.”

Beyond institutional changes, individual professors at campuses across the country also are working to support their students as they navigate the challenges of learning in a virtual environment and experience social isolation during the pandemic.

Anne Fletcher, a professor of English and developmental writing at Austin Community College with 50 years of teaching experience, extends her efforts beyond the classroom to prevent more students from dropping out. In each of the last three semesters, Fletcher has lost more students than she did in any previous semester at the college. Typically, only one or two drop her courses in a given semester, but she estimates she’s lost about 10 percent since last March.

Roughly half of the students Fletcher teaches are considered high risk of not completing their bachelor’s degree. Many come from low-income backgrounds, historically underserved communities, or are English language learners.

The pandemic took a particular toll on her students’ mental health and emotional well-being. As Fletcher became more aware of their increased anxiety and depression from online learning, lockdown restrictions, and personal health challenges from COVID-19, she became more mindful of her students’ current pandemic needs.

Fletcher decided to hold special online sessions as a way to give personalized help to those struggling with their work. She also gives extra credit to those who turn in a biweekly confidential journal where they note how they’re doing, what’s going well, and areas in which they’re struggling.

When pandemic protocols caused all 11 campuses of Austin Community College to shut down, Fletcher continued to meet with students in person by convening in a public library branch still open to visitors. In the fall, she drove 30 miles to a nearby city, San Marcos, to bring students in another class books on their reading list.

Fletcher makes herself “available, for not just academics, but for whatever they may have needed,” she said. “I want to provide that help. I want them to be successful in college, not just in my class but in their other courses. I want them to have a better life.”​