Students’ mental health – How to combat COVID-19’s second curve

As colleges are beginning to experience the struggles of inviting students back or pivoting to online education amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the effort to adapt to this ‘new normal’ is taking a toll on students’ mental health.

Whether returning for another semester or starting a college journey, it can be expected that students should feel a normal level of stress. This year, COVID-19 has undoubtedly helped elevate levels of anxiety. As students are forced to modify study plans and social interactions, and even suspend internships or research projects.

These harsh disruptions and uncertainty can lead to a range of psychological consequences. Students can experience anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and even difficulty sleeping. These can be compounded for students who experience significant losses and grief, as they’re at greater risk of prolonged grief disorder.1

Research highlights students’ mental health struggles

Unfortunately, students are now finding themselves more anxious, and even depressed about the circumstances they face. In fact, a survey conducted by Active Minds found that 9 in 10 (91 percent) college students reported that COVID-19 had added greater “stress and anxiety” to their lives, while 8 in 10 (81 percent) reported the pandemic caused them “disappointment and sadness.”

New research from Dartmouth on the impacts of COVID-19 on college students from the spring 2020 semester is helping provide deeper insights about students’ mental health status. The study, which started two years before the pandemic, used smartphone data and self-reported symptoms of mental health distress generated from a group of undergraduate students both prior to and amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. Unfortunately, the findings indicate that there has been a notable increase in self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the onset of COVID-19.2

This research points to problems ahead, as students who are anxious and depressed can often turn to alcohol and other drugs to “treat” their symptoms. While substance use can offer temporary relief, this form of “self-medication” has the opposite effect over time, leading to deeper symptoms of depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, this can create a vicious cycle of ups and downs for students who don’t seek help, as they increase their substance use to cope with the distress that they are feeling.

Ensure access to behavioral telehealth options

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, one in five college students experienced one or more diagnosable mental disorders. This was just one of the reasons Wellfleet started placing a larger focus on student mental health issues. We aimed to ensure students would have access to the care they need.

It’s easy to see how stress levels are on the rise — especially when students’ plans are constantly changing. Students this year have had to consider and worry about where they’re going to live and how they’re going to afford tuition. Unfortunately, as college students are experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety, 60 percent say the pandemic has made it harder to access mental health care.3

According to Wellfleet’s Chief Medical officer, Barrie Baker, “we had seen a rise in the number of mental health related issues experienced by our student population a few years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. So, we’re glad we have the experience and services to help. However, now, more than ever, we need to raise awareness, so that students know their options. We need to empower them with resources and encourage them to get help so they don’t suffer alone.”

What colleges can do to help

It will be important for college counseling centers to provide students with service options, including tele-mental health counseling or online support groups. Baker champions these options, stating that “while mental health treatment is best provided face-to-face, students in need will benefit greatly from the virtual services versus going it alone, without seeking treatment.”

Further, it will be important for colleges to amplify messaging around availability of resources to students. Like how to manage stress during a pandemic, and encouraging them to take action to protect their mental health.

Students who currently seek assistance for mental health or have done so in the past should contact their provider to see if they offer or will be offering telehealth options. Fortunately, Wellfleet’s insurance plans cover telehealth appointments with a student’s regular provider. So there’s never a concern about additional out-of-pocket fees.

Wellfleet Student plans make it easy to find telehealth options. Our telehealth lookup empowers students to find the best provider based on what’s most important to them. Students can select providers in the Cigna network based on reviews, geography, services offered, gender preference and more.

Find out how telehealth is enabling access to health care during these challenging times and the options available.

1 Aten, Jamie D. (July, 16 2020). COVID-19 Mental Health Challenges for College Students. Psychology today.

2 Huckins, Jeremy F. (June 17, 2020). Mental Health and Behavior of College Students During the Early Phases of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Longitudinal Smartphone and Ecological Momentary Assessment Study. Dartmouth College.

3 (July, 2020). The impact of COVID-19 on college student well-being. The American College Health Association.

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