Vector illustration of mental health concept with brain, flowers, helping hand

The Impact of Remote Learning on College Students’ Mental Health

by Josette Barrans


What you can do:


Throughout history, people have fought to destigmatize mental health issues and to make mental health a priority. But time and time again, mental health has been put on the back-burner as a result of the decisions made by governing institutions and politicians. Unfortunately, this trend has continued in America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Americans have had to shift their entire lives to adapt to this new normal, there have been few opportunities for anyone to focus on their mental health. This is especially true for college students, most of whom are currently experiencing fully remote or hybrid semesters as a result of the pandemic.

Colleges have been forced to fundamentally alter their operations in response to the threat posed by the pandemic. Many schools didn’t bring any students back to campus this semester, leaving many young adults stuck in their childhood homes for the foreseeable future. Not only does this eliminate the social aspect of being a college student, but it leaves many people in less than ideal learning environments. Some might have crowded homes filled with distractions, shared bedrooms, or poor internet service. Remote students also don’t have access to campus resources that are meant to level the academic playing field, such as quiet study spaces, consistent internet access, and accessible faculty advising. Additionally, many colleges changed their academic calendar to an accelerated semester so that classes and finals would be over by Thanksgiving break, essentially cutting almost a month off of the semester. This shortened timelines forced teachers to increase the weekly workload for students if they wanted to cover all of their usual class material. Most schools eliminated any type of fall break as they didn’t want students leaving campus to visit all different parts of the country and come back a few days later, for this would pose a great COVID risk and allow for super spreading. So, there was no mid-semester reprieve from the steady slew of assignments and studying. Students are now being forced to spend the whole day staring at a screen – between hours of Zoom class, virtual club meetings, and completing homework assignments. They are probably doing all of this while sitting in the same place, likely the desk in their bedroom. On top of all this, students are dealing with general anxiety and depression as a result of the global pandemic that has taken millions of lives, including family members and close friends of some students, and left many families less financially stable. Living in such a state of uncertainty about the future is nerve-wracking, especially for college students concerned about future career prospects.

All of these changes in response to the pandemic have neglected to consider and adequately address one key issue: mental health. In a recent survey of college students conducted by the organization Active Minds, they found 1 in 4 students said their depression had “significantly increased” since the start of the pandemic, 89% of the students surveyed said they’re experiencing stress or anxiety, and 56% said their daily activity had decreased or significantly decreased [1]. Furthermore, the social distancing necessary to fight the pandemic leaves many students feeling more isolated and lonely than ever – as they can’t hang out with friends consistently or even eat in a dining hall together. College has always been academically challenging, but this stress could usually be balanced out by partying or watching a movie with friends on the weekend. Now, even the socialization and physical activity of walking to class through campus has been lost. The weekends and weekdays seem to blend together, leaving students with a sensation of constantly working with no clear break in sight.

American colleges vary greatly in the level and extent of mental health services that they provide. The CAPS programs and counseling centers are understaffed or underfunded in many places. Sometimes, there can be long waits for students seeking a counselor to talk to. With the demand for counselling only increasing since the start of the pandemic, it is imperative that colleges focus on increasing the capacity of their mental health staff so that any student that reaches out can talk to a counselor immediately and consistently. Substantial budgets should be directed towards these services and sufficient numbers of staff should be hired. Most important of all, these services should be available to any student at any school, no matter what their health insurance coverage is.

You might think that virtual counseling services would make seeking help more accessible than ever, but this is not the case. Due to U.S. government regulations concerning the licensure of healthcare providers, colleges can’t provide diagnostic and clinical services to students outside of the state that the college is located in. So, students who are studying remotely outside of the state or even go home for 2 months for winter break cannot access the mental health tele-health services from their university. This policy can leave many students without the services they need at the time when they need it most. At first, some state governors have been able to pass temporary emergency exceptions, but due to the prolonged nature of this pandemic many of these policies will soon expire. In an attempt to remedy this issue, people have proposed legislation such as the PSYPACT, an act that would allow psychologists “practice via telemedicine in states other than where they’re licensed” [2]. This legislation has been enacted in 14 states so far, but would need the support of all 50 states to be fully impactful, which would likely be a slow process. Another option that was recently introduced in the Senate was the TREAT Act, which would “support the ability for full cross-state care for all licensed providers through the duration of the pandemic emergency” [3]. While these are promising starts, there is still a gaping hole in access to services that will need to be filled as we wait for such legislation to be adopted.

Though colleges themselves should be doing more in terms of broad policies and access to resources, teachers can also step up in individual ways. Teachers are having a rough time too, as they lost the engagement of in-person teaching and had to learn a completely new technology platform. But, many students feel that they have more work than ever, with professors giving more frequent assignments in order to keep students “engaged” and “on track”. With all of these assignments adding up, students just feel overwhelmed. It is important for teachers to recognize that they probably won’t be able to cover the same amount of material as a normal semester. They could consider being more flexible with deadlines and grading, as well as not giving as many tests or large assignments.

The lack of mental health support in the American higher education system has been a long-standing issue that was only exacerbated and further exposed by the pandemic. Colleges consistently prioritize putting money towards fancy new buildings over substantial mental health services. There is also a consistent issue of performative mental health services, such as having puppies in the library during finals or offering a free yoga class once a month. Now more than ever, it is time for colleges to step up across the board and start actually prioritizing the mental health of their students.


Works Cited:

[1] https://www.activeminds.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Student-Mental-Health-Data-Sheet-Fall-2020-1.pdf

[2] https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/09/10027717/college-mental-health-services-covid

[3] https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/09/10027717/college-mental-health-services-covid

Photo Credit: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/global-mental-health-in-the-time-of-covid-19-2020061620194