Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, TimelyMD, a telehealth provider specializing in higher education, has commissioned surveys that capture a picture of how the pandemic is impacting students ages 18 to 29 at two-year and four-year institutions. The most recent online survey included 1,676 responses from students across the country who are currently enrolled. 57% of respondents attend public colleges or universities; 24% private colleges or universities and 19% two-year colleges.
Of the 1,672 respondents who answered questions about their ethnicity, 18.12% identified as African American, 15.49% as Latinx, 38.64% as white and 16.63% as Asian or Asian American. The purpose of the survey was to get a snapshot of how students are feeling as they enter their fifth semester impacted by the global pandemic.
“We’re trying to help both students and administrators at schools see and understand what’s going on with the students and how they’re feeling to help guide decisions of how they can best support students,” said Dr. Alan Dennington, chief medical officer and co-founder of TimelyMD. “It’s addressed to administrators at schools and people in the community to really recognize where students are at right now from a mental health perspective.”
In response to the question “Are you experiencing emotional distress/stress and/or anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic and/or introduction of COVID-19 variants (Omicron, Delta),” 70% of respondents answered yes and 51% indicated they are experiencing more stress/anxiety than this time last year.
“What struck me most is…88% of students are saying that they feel like there is a mental health crisis on their campus, which I understand to mean that they feel like there are mental health issues that are present in a large percentage of the population and that the demands for those aren’t being met with resources,” said Dennington.
Stress is more pronounced among women and non-binary students. 76% of female respondents and 81% of non-binary respondents noted that the pandemic has caused them stress and anxiety as opposed to 55% of male respondents. 77% of female and non-binary students reported experiencing the same or more stress/anxiety than they did a year ago.
“Young people have been in college on a campus and then are forced to go back home with a family that maybe they aren’t either out to or maybe they’re out as gay, but not necessary as non-binary because they’re either exploring or figuring that out themselves,” said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, an organization that provides a range of services and information for LGBTQ college students.
Another issue impacting non-binary students is lack of proper pronouns in online learning, noted Windmeyer. “People using their pronouns respectfully has been a challenge with online learning because it’s less personal,” he said.
Other data points note that stressors include the pandemic’s impact on education (54%), impact on physical health (41%), impact on finances (34%) and inability to enjoy everything campus normally has to offer (40%). 64% said they intended to seek out emotional support from friends, family and/or campus counseling or mental health services.
Dennington said it’s important that colleges and universities recognize that health issues continue. 27% of the respondents indicated they have tested positive for COVID-19 since Thanksgiving 2021. 48% of respondents said they want more remote health and well-being support in the form of student health or mental health services.
“[Colleges and universities] should be looking at ways they can make those resources available and make those students feel supported. Also, letting the students know about the resources that are in place and available to them,” said Dennington. “Students feel a lot of stress and anxiety around COVID and continued issues from that. It’s something that people should be keeping front of mind as they’re developing their protocols and procedures and the resources they’re going to make available to their students.”
Lack of access to an LGBTQ community can intensify stress for non-binary and other queer students, said Windmeyer. Since the onset of the pandemic, Campus Pride has had programming that tries to maintain the feeling of a safe space for LGBTQ students to laugh, cry, cope and connect.
“Interaction and engagement are really important for a young LGBTQ person,” Windmeyer said. “That has been a real challenge. Even if they can find it online, it’s just not the same. Through our programming, we’ve tried our best to maintain connection and engagement, to talk openly about mental health and how to cope.”
Prior to the pandemic, TimelyMD was working with approximately 15 institutions and now works with more than 150. The demand for telehealth has increased exponentially as students study virtually either from home or from other off-campus locations.
“COVID has pushed us into more of a virtual lifestyle,” said Dennington. “Even once COVID has become endemic and part of life we won’t go back to everything being the same as it was before as far as everything being in person.
“You’re going to have more non-traditional students who are living off-campus, living remotely and attending virtually,” he added. “To provide equitable services for them you need a virtual solution as far as healthcare and mental healthcare are concerned.”