According to research done by the National Institute of Mental Health, the rate of college aged students experiencing depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders has been alarmingly high in the past few years.
And this was all prior to COVID-19.
With the introduction of a worldwide pandemic, a study done by the nonprofit Active Minds showed that 1 in 5 college students have reported that their mental health has significantly worsened. And although there is a lack of research, with protests occurring everyday for the Black Lives Matter movement and nationwide counter-protests, it is safe to assume this is only another added level of stress onto an already incredibly vulnerable age group.
With all of the challenges presented by the current state of the world and the pre-existing mental health problems of college students, one has to ask the question: How are students expected to successfully learn in this sort of environment?
Which then begs the follow-up question: How can professors and educators help to foster an environment in which they are able to teach and students are able to learn during this time of seemingly insurmountable change?
According to an article from the Washington Post, the three areas most commonly affected by stress and hardship are:
- A Sense of Safety
As a student who took courses this Summer, I can admit a couple things: 1. That these areas in my life are most definitely being affected, and 2. That these things are definitely not the easiest to foster for both students and educators. However, through a theater class I took this past summer called THEA: 10.57 Dance Theater of Harlem: The Hazel Scott Project, Artist As Activist, led by Dr. Monica Ndounou and choreographer John Heginbotham, I have found that fostering that kind of supportive environment in a remote learning setting is possible with a little persistence, patience, and participation.
A Sense of Safety
Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post defines a Sense of Safety as,
"...the belief that your needs — and the needs of those you care about — will be met. It is a belief that you will be protected from harm and that those around you will be safe."
With COVID-19 and heightened political and racial tensions in the U.S and around the world, most people's sense of safety is unquestionably in shambles. For many of us, this moment in history is either unprecedented or extra hardships on an already tough life. And college students, who traditionally use this period in their lives to gain structure and guidance as they prepare for their futures, are instead encountering a variety of unknowns, unrest, and potential trauma during this period-- all things directly linked to one's sense of safety.
Prior to Summer term, I was not looking forward to starting classes with everything going on in the world. To be honest, with it being my last term at Dartmouth College -- senior-itis kicking in strong-- I was worried about how the combined pressure of everything would affect my overall motivation and sense of direction as I tried to move forward through the term. It is very discouraging to graduate into a pandemic, and I spent a lot of time balancing how to be okay and work past that fact while also just trying to finish college. Thankfully for me, Dr. Ndounou and John Heginbotham created an incredibly supportive classroom environment in THEA 10.57 which, in turn, helped to alleviate some of the pressures of those unknowns. Specifically, a Sense of Safety was fostered through establishing open communication with my professors on day one. My co-professors mentioned both in the syllabus and in class their willingness to be flexible with our course structure/work this term due to the extraordinarily outstanding circumstances. In doing so, they not only gave us students the permission to not always "be ok" during a national pandemic and a tense election year, but they also gave themselves the permission and space to not always be on top of things. Although our work schedule was fluid throughout the term, the class stayed easily on top of work by beginning and ending every session with an overview of what was to be expected.
While the challenges in the world will persist, here are some more specific ways educators can help support their students and their sense of safety in the current moment:
- Be open and supportive with your students! Let your students know in class, in your syllabus, or with a survey that you're happy to talk about any pre-existing or new challenges that may arise throughout the term. Include built-in office hours or easy ways students can contact you!
- Be open and honest about the current state of the world, rather than continuing purely, "business as usual". Allow yourself as an educator to acknowledge the struggles we are all currently facing during COVID-19. From there you can adjust expectations for the term for both yourself and your students accordingly.
- Create a clear syllabus you and students can easily and strictly stick to, and prepare materials needed for class in advance on Canvas. Alternatively, opt for a more flexible lesson plan based on the students' capacity and keep yourself and students up to date with class work by beginning and ending every session with what will be expected for the following class. Whichever you choose, be sure to communicate the level of flexibility.
- Reach out to students if you see them having a hard time and offer support. If they are struggling and need more assistance, you can direct them online to Dartmouth's Wellness Resources.
One of the biggest impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and the rapid transition to remote learning is a drastic decrease in connectedness. For our context, connectedness refers to the creation of supportive relationships and open dialogues amongst others around you. With no on-campus classes this past Spring and Summer, and only partial in-person learning to take place this upcoming school year, the ability to foster connections with and amongst students will only become more challenging.
I had already taken a class with Dr. Ndounou prior to the Theater course this summer, so I was already prepared and excited to have a class that began every session with a short, meditative moment-- especially given the current world circumstances. At the beginning of every class, Professor Heginbotham or Dr. Ndounou would ask if someone would be willing to volunteer leading the class in taking three, intentional, breaths. There is no right way to lead this exercise, but the point of it is to give both the professors and students a moment to establish Connectedness, relax, release tension, and set good intentions for the class ahead. Though a seemingly small action, those three breaths I took at the beginning of every class set me up to better engage for the rest of the session.
Here are some extra examples of ways educators can help foster this connectedness inside and outside of the classroom:
- On top of incorporating built-in zoom office hours into your syllabus, (if the class size permits) create mandatory check-in meetings with your students. Some students may not feel comfortable engaging on Zoom, so giving them the space and time to meet with you one on one can potentially do wonders for a student struggling remotely.
- Do check-ins at the beginning of every class! Ask about student's lives: what they're baking, reading, doing in this pandemic, and how they're feeling. And be honest about how you are doing/feeling, too! Having a professor talk openly and honestly about how they are navigating this difficult time helps destigmatize this adjustment period for students, and helps both parties feel more connected.
- Try to make course work or assignments relevant to students' lives. When they are still able to bring a bit of themselves into their work from a remote location, it not only helps them engage with the material, but it encourages others in the class to engage with them, as well-- but this doesn't mean every assignment has to be (or should be) about the coronavirus!
- Practice mindfulness techniques at the beginning/end of class. Taking a moment for a couple of breaths or other intentional meditative exercises can help to give students a moment to prepare mentally for the class ahead or release tension at the end of class if needed.
Hope and Going Forward
With the onslaught of challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the more difficult challenges people have been presented with is the increasing pessimism and uncertainty of what is to come as the pandemic continues. Because of these uncertainties, as well as the current political and civil unrest, people all over the U.S and the world are experiencing feelings of anger, sadness, and hopelessness. Both college students and educators alike may be feeling distressed about family and friends affected by the pandemic, disappointed about canceled events, worried about the changing structure of classes, and generally discouraged by the varied devastating impacts on their lives not yet seen.
Like I said before, graduating into a pandemic is not the most inspiring way to graduate college and a definite sense of hopelessness was hovering over me. As a first-gen student graduating with a film major and no definitive job prospects, things were obviously rough. While I was at first not looking forward to classes, Dr. Ndounou and John Heginbotham are exceptionally good at facilitating important, informative, thoughtful, and enriching conversations and assignments that cultivated a type of personal healing I was happily surprised to encounter. The discussions and assigned work we had throughout the course gave me the opportunity to talk through and process the difficult moment I was experiencing in the comfort of a group of people who I knew were ready to engage and listen.
In Dance Theater of Harlem: The Hazel Scott Project: Artists as Activists, we learned about the historical periods of African American theater in the U.S, and the artists who spearheaded these movements, using their work as a powerful force of change. Our final project was to choreograph a dance based on any character of our choosing, giving us students the opportunity to choose people who could be inspirational for us during this difficult time. On days where we reviewed and talked about the progress on each other's pieces, we used the Liz Lerman critical response technique (applicable for critiquing work outside of performing arts), which helped to ensure us students were receiving the positive feedback we needed at that time. And thankfully, I just so happened to luck into an amazing class with amazing educators, peers, and fellow guest learners from Dance Theater of Harlem, who always made intentional efforts to uplift one another at any chance they could get.
In doing all this (and more), the class sessions stopped feeling less like a burden on top of everything else going. Instead, they became a time every week where I expected to find a holistic learning, healing, and safe place to process and work through my current struggles with others experiencing similar (if not the same) sorts of things. It became a place that helped me foster Hope.
To counteract feelings of hopelessness in your students, here are some ideas educators can practice with their students:
- Incorporate relevant and timely topics into your pre-existing coursework to create an environment that allows for yourself and students to talk through this crisis. Provide inspiring examples for how other people in the world and throughout history have gotten through similar crises. Give them and yourself the space to process everything that is going on in constructive ways!
- Encourage yourself and your students to practice self care techniques at home-- including adequate amounts of sleep, exercise, and healthy eating. And (again) encourage your students to seek help if they need it-- either locally in their home town or you can direct those who need further help to Dartmouth's Wellness Resources. It is important to take care of yourself and be patient with yourself in times of high stress.
- Share positive or affirming stories you may have heard throughout your week in class to help break up the constant flow of disheartening information available on social media.
- Uplift your students and share positive affirmations about them, with them! It doesn't have to be extensive, a small, thoughtful, comment will go a long way in the current moment.
The suggestions and real life examples I've noted above to help educators better accommodate their students (and themselves) during the COVID-19 pandemic are of course not going to eliminate all of the stress and anxieties caused by the state of the world.
But, thankfully, eliminating all the stress is not our end goal. Instead, through the educational practices I listed (and others I'm sure I missed), educators and students alike are able to begin to learn how to work through traumatic events with the help and support of the community around them. Our actual end goal is to successfully use these communities we find ourselves in to generate even a little bit of safety, connecctedness, and hope during times like these when things seem hopeless.
Further reading resources you may find helpful:
- "Any Anxiety Disorder." National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2017, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml.
- Brown, Sarah, and Alexander C. Kafka. "Covid-19 Has Worsened the Student Mental-Health Crisis. Can Resilience Training Fix It?" CHE, CHE, 23 July 2020, www.chronicle.com/article/covid-19-has-worsened-the-student-mental-health-crisis-can-resilience-training-fix-it/.
- "COVID-19 IMPACT ON COLLEGE STUDENT MENTAL HEALTH." Student-Survey-Infographic, Active Minds, 2020, www.activeminds.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Student-Survey-Infographic.pdf.
- "Critical Response Process: A Method for Giving and Getting Feedback." Liz Lerman, 1 June 2020, lizlerman.com/critical-response-process/.
- "Dartmouth College Health Service." Wellness Resources | Dick's House: Dartmouth College Health Service, students.dartmouth.edu/health-service/counseling/outreach/dartmouth-cares-suicide-prevention/wellness-resources.
- "Eating Disorders." National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2017, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/eating-disorders.shtml.
- Gross, Terry. "College Students (And Their Parents) Face A Campus Mental Health 'Epidemic'." NPR, NPR, 28 May 2019, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/05/28/727509438/college-students-and-their-parents-face-a-campus-mental-health-epidemic.
- "John Heginbotham." Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth, 16 Sept. 2020, hop.dartmouth.edu/people/john-heginbotham.
- Kamenetz, Anya. "5 Radical Schooling Ideas For An Uncertain Fall And Beyond." NPR, NPR, 17 June 2020, www.npr.org/2020/06/17/878205853/5-radical-schooling-ideas-for-an-uncertain-fall-and-beyond.
- Kerr, Emma. "How College Students Are Managing Coronavirus Stress." U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 27 Apr. 2020, www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/how-college-students-are-managing-coronavirus-stress.
- "Major Depression." National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2017, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression.shtml.
- "Monica White Ndounou." Department of Theater, 16 Sept. 2020, theater.dartmouth.edu/people/monica-white-ndounou.
- "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)." National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2017, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd.shtml
- Powers-Barker, Patrice, et al. "Using Mindfulness Practices During COVID-19 Pandemic." Using Mindfulness Practices During COVID-19 Pandemic | Family and Consumer Sciences, fcs.osu.edu/news/covid-19-updates-and-resources/using-mindfulness-practices..
- Samuel, Sigal. "'Our Calm Is Contagious': How to Use Mindfulness in a Pandemic." Vox, Vox, 18 Mar. 2020, www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/3/18/21181644/coronavirus-covid-19-mindfulness-meditation-anxiety.
- Strauss, Valerie. "Analysis | A Trauma-Informed Approach to Teaching through Coronavirus - for Students Everywhere, Online or Not." The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 Mar. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/26/trauma-informed-approach-teaching-through-coronavirus-students-everywhere-online-or-not/.
- "Tips to Help College Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic." Tips to Help College Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic | McLean Hospital, 28 Mar. 2020, www.mcleanhospital.org/news/tips-help-college-students-during-covid-19-pandemic.