What societal unrest means for mental health on campus

The past year has brought heightened mental health stress to college campuses, not only because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but because of a nationwide reckoning with racial injustice. College students in the US have been at the forefront of activist movements since the Civil Rights Era. This year was no exception. They watched or participated in protests following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and are investing time and energy into holding institutions accountable for diversity and equity. We know that protests, even when nonviolent, contribute to adverse mental health outcomes, which makes it more important than ever to support the mental health of college students.

Mental health consequences of societal unrest

There are many reasons that social unrest contributes to mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These consequences can be particularly pronounced among college students as they navigate a new experience away from home, surrounded by new people.

News that defies our basic expectations of society, including personal safety and being treated equally, forces us to re-evaluate. Confronting facts that contradict our world view provokes anxiety. It leaves us feeling less in control of our surroundings and our own lives. For many, student activism is a way to re-exert a sense of control.

At the same time, student activism is time- and energy-intensive. It takes individuals away from their regular schoolwork and extracurriculars, can interfere with healthy sleep habits, and can cause mental depletion and exhaustion – all of which exacerbate anxiety and depression. Students of color, who often represent the most invested campus activists, already face increased risk of depression and thoughts of suicide. Add to this the pressure of being a student activist, of feeling responsible for change, and it is clear why mental health support is critical for these communities especially.

Images of violence make people feel unsafe and can trigger PTSD for individuals who have previously experienced trauma. Again, students of color are particularly vulnerable to PTSD symptoms upon seeing damage done to people who look like them.

For those already in the mental healthcare system, social unrest may compound feelings of hopelessness and lead students to disengage from their care routine. It is important to acknowledge how current events interact with students’ mental health and to offer a variety of resources to meet their changing needs in a changing social/political climate.

Author-activist Angela Davis said it best: “Anyone who’s interested in making change in the world also has to learn how to take care of herself, himself, their selves.” Colleges have a role to play in spreading this message across campus.

How to fulfill these mental healthcare needs

Alongside this message, schools should promote existing campus mental health services to their civic-minded students and should try to increase appointment capacity during periods of heightened unrest. Beyond this, there are specific features of a mental healthcare system that allow it to best serve student activists and all participating in protests:

  • Minimize barriers to accessing care. Signing-up for a therapy intake appointment should be a quick, seamless process for already-overwhelmed students. Provider referrals for therapy or psychiatry should similarly be as fast and straightforward as possible.

  • Encourage self-care practices. Mental health providers can share strategies and resources to help students make self-care a habit. In between appointments, student activists can practice prioritizing self-care through measures such as turning off news notifications before bedtime, scheduling low-stress social activities at regular intervals, or adhering to a healthy exercise regimen to relieve stress.

  • Offer 24/7 support to parallel the 24/7 news cycle. Being able to securely message a mental health provider at any time, even without receiving an immediate response, is a helpful outlet for students experiencing anxiety related to societal unrest. News can break at any time of day or night. It is valuable for students to have access to mental health resources around-the-clock as well.

  • Make a range of resources available through stepped care. Not all students will feel ready to speak to a therapist right away, even after acknowledging a personal mental health concern. Some might feel more comfortable with telehealth visits to start, or may prefer digital resources to guide their own self-care. Given that societal unrest can also lead to disengagement from a prior mental healthcare routine, it is important that schools offer a variety of resources for students looking to scale up or scale down their treatment.

The call-to-action has never been louder: Students need expanded capacity and improved quality of mental healthcare from their colleges and universities as they live through a pandemic and a year of unsettling current events.

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