The Damage of the Pandemic to Higher Education and Student Health

The coronavirus pandemic is currently surging in many parts of the U.S. Just as cooler weather, the flu season and the holidays approach, COVID-19 is killing over 800 Americans per day, and case counts are reaching new peaks in some states. We have heard a good deal about the pandemic’s economic impact on businesses, especially in the hospitality and airline industries. Another consequence is its impact on higher education – an impact that threatens student health and the future of millions of students. Many of the responses of higher education administrators have sent chilling messages to students, parents, and prospective students.

Impact on Higher Education

The coronavirus is forcing colleges and universities – large and small, famous, and not-so-well-known – to dramatically cut academic programs, student services, and lay off employees. Even Harvard University with its massive endowment has not been immune to the belt tightening. Cost estimates run into the hundreds of billions of dollars of lost revenue or additional costs to colleges and universities across in the U.S. In the spring of 2020, when most Americans thought the coronavirus might be under control in a matter of weeks, colleges began softer cost-cutting measures such as offering early retirements and implementing hiring freezes. But given the persistence of the pandemic, those measure proved to be much too little. Across the country more drastic cost saving measures are taking place. These include laying off employees (even tenured faculty, an anathema in academia), delaying graduate admissions, eliminating entire departments and degree programs, and reducing student support services. In some cases, entire colleges are vanishing as they are consolidated into other institutions. Over 300,000 jobs in higher education have been lost according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wave of Belt-Tightening

This wave of belt-tightening in 2020 comes in the midst of a longstanding relatively quiet recession in higher education. This financial crisis has been going on for years and has been brought on by reductions in State and Federal support for higher education, by decreasing enrollments, and by increasing student concerns about skyrocketing tuition and burdensome student debt. (Average student debt is now around $33,000 and much higher for graduate and professional students.) In response, many systems, like the University System of Georgia, were already closing and consolidating public colleges even before the coronavirus first arrived in the U.S. on January 20, 2020.

Student Health Needs More Attention

Too often in financial crises, businesses and institutions give too little attention to the wellbeing of stakeholders by their employees or in this case, students. The enduring coronavirus pandemic has only made a bad situation worse. Colleges’ costs for new safety measures have cost them millions. Students and parents have been reluctant to pay the same or nearly the same tuition for online classes. Freshmen enrollment is down 16% from 2019 as some students take a gap year or pursue other plans. Other students have sought out lower cost educational options.

Pandemic Affecting Social Change

Traditionally, higher education has been the linchpin for social mobility in the U.S. for lower income and poor students. But the pandemic is also affecting that avenue for social change. Some of these students seem to have given up on higher education, at least for now. This is reflected in an 8% reduction in awards of federal Pell Grants in 2020. These are educational funds given to deserving poor and lower income students to help them learn marketable skills and obtain undergraduate degrees or certifications.

What it Means for Student Health

It seems likely that the pandemic will be with us at least well into 2021, an almost unimaginable outcome in the spring of 2020 when quarantines and lockdowns began. As institutions of higher education continue their rounds of budget revisions and cuts, how will those decisions affect services that support the wellbeing of students? To what extent will decision makers take the wellbeing of vulnerable students into consideration? Will advocates of student health be included in the decisions? Will administrators make sure that their decisions sensitively recognize and address the mental health and wellbeing of their students? Will they recognize the enormous stress experienced by students – even in the best of times? Are they mindful that among traditional college age students that suicide is already the second leading cause of death, and that suicides almost invariably involve an untreated, poorly treated, or completely undetected emotional conditions?

Administrators Focus on Services to Support Student Health

I encourage administrators to revisit their Student Assistance Programs (SAP), campus counseling center services, and other services that support student health and wellbeing. In doing so, they should look for creative, proactive, cost-effective solutions to support, engage, and assist students in their wellbeing. Not doing so communicates another distressing message to students and parents.

About the Author

Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr. For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.


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About Espyr

For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change.  For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.

College Students In Crisis. What You Need To Know Now.

There’s a mental health crisis spreading across our colleges and universities. If you’re a parent of a college-aged child – or an aunt, uncle or grandparent – you should be very concerned.  If you’re a college administrator, college student mental health issues shouldn’t be coming as a surprise to you.

The Disturbing Facts

It’s time we think seriously about college student mental health and the emotional turmoil that is affecting so many of our college students.   You might be surprised, and probably shocked, at these statistics provided in an article recently by Gene Beresin, Harvard Medical School Professor of Psychiatry:

  • 73% of college students experience some sort of mental health crisis during college.
  • Almost 50% of college students have had a psychiatric disorder in the past year.
  • Almost 33% of college students report having felt so depressed, they had trouble functioning.
  • More than 80% of college students felt overwhelmed by all they have to do.
  • 45% have felt that things were hopeless.
  • College directors of counseling services say demand for counseling services has grown at least five times faster than average student enrollment.
  • Only 25% of students with a mental health problem seek help.

These problems, of course, lead to other problems, starting with diminished school performance. In a University of Michigan study, depression was shown to be a significant predictor of not only GPA, but also the likelihood of dropping out. In addition, the co-occurrence of depression and anxiety is associated with a significant additional drop in GPA.

With all this going on, alcohol and drug abuse cannot be far behind. Even suicide comes into play. Yes, this mental health crisis is serious, and something must be done.

The Rest of the Story

Let’s start this section by being perfectly transparent: Espyr, offers a Student Assistance Program (SAP) providing colleges and universities with licensed behavioral health experts that support students with free and confidential professional assessment, counseling, referral services, coaching and other support services. Would we like every campus to offer a customized Espyr SAP? Yes. Would this completely solve the problem? No. But it is a big piece in solving the puzzle.

Unfortunately, for the typical college student in emotional trouble, there are too many factors getting in the way of finding any kind of help. According to the Huffington Post article quoted previously these include:

  • Age-Specific Vulnerabilities – About 50% of psychiatric disorders begin by age 14.
  • Immature Brains – The human brain does not fully mature until about age 26. Until we reach our mid-twenties, the brain is largely driven by emotion.
  • The Stigma of Mental Health Problems – This stigma exists for adults, as well as college-aged children. Students may worry about a “black mark” on their record or being judged and categorized by peers.
  • Limited On-Campus Services – Even in small schools, the ratio of certified counselors to students can be 1:2,000 – or worse.

Making Things Better

This situation cannot be fixed overnight. But we have to begin. Just looking at some of the issues and problems already mentioned, the action plan is fairly clear:

  • Increase Access to Qualified Help – For the suffering students who want to get help, they need to have places to go, people to call or websites to visit. Of course, an SAP from Espyr or elsewhere can help in this regard, and has proven repeatedly to be extremely valuable to thousands of students and their families.
  • Increase On-Campus Learning – Key to prevention is accessible education about mental health issues, as well as promoting all options for finding help.  SAPs like Espyr’s can help faculty and administrators with training, workshops, and access to educational resources.
  • Decrease the Stigma – Again, education is key. The more students realize they’re not alone in their suffering, the more they’ll be willing to seek help.
  • Promote Student Well-Being – Good mental health is promoted by good nutrition, exercise, good sleep habits, meditation, discussion groups and more. These activities should be part of every campus curriculum, whether official or not.

These suggestions are not exhaustive, by any means. But it’s a step in the right direction, a step towards saving our children from unnecessary suffering. Maybe, even, saving their lives.

For more information on how to develop a customized Student Assistance Program for your educational institution, call Espyr at 866-570-3479 or go to