The Other Health Crisis on Campus

Laurie Katz Braun

Our nation’s college students are in grave danger. Despite their best efforts, many universities are facing viral outbreaks, closing their doors, and sending students home. But what about the thousands of colleges that have remained open? Are they keeping their students safe?

Administrators at many colleges (especially those with smaller student bodies) are answering with a resounding: Yes! They point to required testing, bans on group gatherings, and students housed in single rooms. Many believe that if their covid numbers remain low, then their students are safe.
But they are dead wrong.

The most brilliant educators in our land have–in a very short period of time–become enforcers of student isolation. And that is exactly the problem. With a terrifying degree of irony, our nations’ experts in student engagement have suddenly reversed course, placing students in solitary confinement and forbidding them to engage with anyone at all. And the consequences are devastating.

The unaddressed, under-discussed, overlooked crisis facing our college students in the age of Covid is a crisis of isolation. While we adults have been perseverating about keeping our students physically safe on campus, many of our students have been facing a devastating trifecta of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. These are all the elements required to plunge already vulnerable 18 to 21-year-olds into a collective mental health crisis–one that we are unprepared to prevent, treat, or respond to with adequate care.

When we read about unauthorized parties on some campuses, it’s easy to shake our heads at students who flout social-distancing rules. But this just distracts us from the larger, invisible crisis happening behind closed doors. The majority of college students in 2020 aren’t in the news for throwing parties. They’re sitting in their rooms, following the rules, and suffering in silence. This is especially true for first year college students, who are taking their first steps into adulthood at a perilous time. It’s the perfect storm of a major life transition, a deadly virus, and no supervision–all at a time when the judgment and decision-making centers of their brains have not yet fully developed.
Consider the parent who wrote to her university’s Parent Facebook page (but requested anonymity for her daughter’s sake):

“My daughter arrived today, knows absolutely no one, had a q-tip shoved up her nose, moved into her dorm without a single person welcoming her, will be eating alone, and looked absolutely miserable as i drove away…Could there not have been something to make the experience of students at least somewhat joyful?!”

Or the dad who wrote this lament (while also requesting anonymity for the sake of his son):

“The emotional state of the incoming frosh is something that any competent administration should have put at the very top of their list. It should not have been an afterthought. Even now the administrators are saying they are addressing it, but I don’t believe them. I don’t see any evidence.”

In typical times, universities know how to create community implicitly. Welcome wagons are rolled out, doors are decorated, hall meetings are planned, ice-breakers are organized. Every mental health practitioner knows that these events are not just fun and games. They also serve a much more serious purpose: to support a student’s mental health as they navigate one of the most important transitions of their lives. Far from being disposable ‘extras,’ these programs are more like vaccinations. They happen at a scheduled time and play a vital part in preventative health care. And we can’t afford to eliminate them.

On October 10th , nations around the world honor ‘World Mental Health Day.’ This day is a critical reminder to us here in America to pay attention to the mental health crisis on our college campuses. Even pre-covid, the mental health statistics for college students were truly alarming. Active Minds, a mental health advocacy organization, reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, preceded only by accidents (including alcohol-related accidents.)

So imagine sending an 18 year-old-to a college campus without communal support, without orientation programs, and without in-person classes. It’s a recipe for disaster, and few parents would agree to do so. And yet in recent days many parents have unwittingly done just that.

In the past six weeks, while occupied with their (important) efforts to prevent covid, many colleges have quietly eliminated all in-person orientation and community-building programs. By creating a ‘parallel universe’ of the college experience–one that keeps students in solitary rooms, fails to nurture community, and neglects to welcome them to their new environment–colleges are averting one crisis at the expense of another.

To be sure, college administrators are facing the challenge of their lives: How to keep their students safe on campus. It is no easy task, and parents worldwide are grateful for their efforts. But today’s college leaders also have a blind spot: They are forgetting that their students’ health is not limited to their physical health.

I can hear some administrators protesting already…pointing out that they are actively expanding their emergency resources, including student hotlines, crisis intervention teams, and emergency mental health appointments. But while emergency resources are important, consider this: You wouldn’t want to live in a city that expands its emergency room services while canceling all regularly-scheduled doctor visits. It is equally dangerous for colleges to invest in crisis intervention while quietly canceling all community-building programs.

Some colleges point to Covid as the (regrettable) reason for abandoning these efforts. But the opposite is true: ESPECIALLY in the age of Covid, colleges must double down on their efforts to protect their students’ mental health. It’s what medical practitioners already know: by investing in preventative care, there are fewer visits to the emergency room.

Esteemed College Presidents and Administrators,

You ignore your students’ mental health needs at your peril–and theirs. In honor of World Mental Health Day, mental health advocacy organizations are coming together to support our nation’s youth. College Leaders, we implore you to join us.

The author is a rabbi, writer, and youth mental health advocate. She is a past president of the Women’s Rabbinic Network and currently serves on the leadership team at The Youth Mental Health Project: www.ymhproject.org