Taking a Deeper Look at our Needs Assessment: Why Cultivating Student Wellness is a Priority

Student Wellness Pre-Pandemic

Our students balance a lot: academic study, research, internships, and, if there’s time, a social life and relaxation. On top of that, many of our students are also raising a family and/or working part- or full-time jobs. Each of these commitments demand their time and effort, which can tax their wellness—mentally, emotionally, and physically.  

The National College Health Assessment (February 2019) found that our students felt the following (at any time in the previous 12 months)overwhelmed (93% of respondents), exhausted from something other than physical activity (90%), very lonely (73%), so depressed it was difficult to function (45%), very sad (74%), and overwhelming anxiety (65%). Students reported that they were diagnosed or treated for anxiety and depression (26% and 23%, respectively). 

And all of this was true before we found ourselves in a global pandemic. 

In a typical pre-pandemic year, students are encouraged to cope with the stress of school and life in general by spending time outdoors, with friends, and away from screens. In spring and fall 2020, safety considerations often forced them to do the opposite.  

Since March 2020, students have been asked (or even required) to stay indoors, forego seeing friends, and significantly increase time spent in front of screens for work and school. While these measures were necessary to keep them safe from the rampant spread of COVID-19, the unfortunate consequence of those precautions is a negative impact on mental health and overall wellbeing.  

We understood that the difficult, yet necessary measures would impact our students in big ways. While we could draw conclusions based on past data trends and common sense, we wanted to hear about the impact of the pandemic on students directly from them. 

ACES Internship and Needs Assessment Data 

To deepen our understanding of COVID-19's impact on our students, three CSW ACES scholars developed a brief needs assessment survey during summer 2020. The survey was distributed to a convenience sample of U students, with 110 responses collected between September 1 and November 1, 2020.  

Overwhelmingly, responses indicate that students are experiencing heightened levels of stress, loneliness, and increased impacts on mental wellbeing since the onset of the pandemic. They also highlight the importance of access to campus resources for support related to mental wellbeing, financial wellness, and basic needsThe responses also show the resiliency of our students as they navigate these unprecedented times and find creative ways to connect in virtual spaces to maintain and build community. 

Diving deeper into the data, student experiences since the start of the pandemic include dealing with more stress (75% of respondents) and having a harder time focusing or concentrating (63%), all of which make maintaining productivity difficult. At the same time, 70% of respondents report feeling bad about being less productive, indicating a negative loop that may increase overall feelings of stress and have additional impacts on wellbeing. Students also reported experiencing increases in loneliness (59%) and feelings of worry (58%), as well as having less energy to get through the day (56%). All these things, paired with a reported greater need for mental health services (54%) contribute to an environment that makes it difficult for students to function at pre-pandemic levels.  

Adding to this, 41.3% of students who completed the survey reported feeling either isolated or very isolated from the campus community. This datapoint underlines the importance of providing programming aimed at increasing sense of belonging, as well as working to increase skills, knowledge, and confidence in students’ ability to find and build community and access resources across campus in creative ways.  

The core of our missions as staff and faculty is to serve and support students. Now more than ever, we must think creatively about how we can do that despite our largely virtual presence 

Based on the data from the ACES assessment, there are many small ways we can make a big difference to our students. In CSW, we have found the following to be helpful. We recognize that staff and faculty can: 

  • Be mindful of the way discussions related to productivity are framed 
  • Find empathy for students who are balancing course loads, learning a new way of navigating school and community, and managing day-to-day life amid a pandemic; 
  • Be flexible with students and their obligations. 

A Resolution in Support of Student Wellbeing during COVID-19 

We are grateful to ASUU and the Academic Senate for outlining additional ways that faculty and staff can take action to support our students during our second full semester of the pandemic.  

The resolution lists 9 actions, summarized below. While the language is directed toward academic instructors, the suggestions are also helpful for staff who work directly with students.  

Instructors should: 

  1. Verbally discuss the opportunity for assignment extensions and accommodations with students as well as include this reassurance in the syllabus.  
  1. Verbally discuss the credit/no credit options for the class as well as include this information in the syllabus. 
  1. Verbally discuss their plans for recording/ not recording the class meetings and allow for students to request, confidentially, that they not be recorded.  
  1. Choose not to assign work to be due during the week that is traditionally Spring Break (March 7-14, 2020).  
  1. Provide a 5-minute “biology break” per each hour of class on Zoom.  
  1. Consider workload/reading assignments in conjunction with student mental health and check in twice during the semester about workload and course pacing.  
  1. Encourage, but should not require students to leave cameras on during class. 
  1. Match the workload of a synchronous course (3 hours per credit hour outside of class) to that of an asynchronous course. 
  1. Provide 3 “mental health days,” for students that can be taken off, similar to excused absences, in observance of their mental health and wellbeing.  

The full resolution can be read here.

Perspectives from Student Affairs Staff 

From Greg Reinhardt, Ed.D | Senior Manager, Campus Recreation Services: 

For my capstone project aa doctoral student in the Educational Leadership and Policy program, chose to examine how students would describe and organize a culture of health and wellness in higher education. The results can help inform how we, as staff, create a culture of health and wellness where well-being is integrated into the student experience. Upon graduating with my Ed.D. in December 2020, I committed to applying my study results to create change for students. Thus, I will outline one section of my results to demonstrate how this information can guide us in applying the ACES Needs Assessment findings. 

When describing health and wellness in my study, students described people, resources, and behaviors that added to (facilitators) or took away from (detractors) their wellness. Facilitators included involvement, a physical health routine, an inclusive campus culture, a support system, and positive coping mechanisms. Detractors to wellness included fatigue and burnout, routine inconsistency, a transactional campus experience, and unwanted independence.  

We can use this information to guide collaboration and referrals to empower students to address intertwined health themes. For example, if we know a student is on the waitlist for a counseling appointment at the UCC and needs help before their appointment, we can refer them to examples from the ACES Needs Assessment [link to PDF summary]. Opportunities such as the Zoom Group “Bob Ross” Painting, Group Mindfulness, or a Group Fitness class all offer opportunities to simultaneously address mental and social health. They can use these resources to facilitate positive coping outlets, involvement, a physical health routine, and support system as they await professional help at the UCC.   

In summary, students have indicated important behaviors to avoid and to engage with in the ACES Needs Assessment. Using our respective area of expertise, we can provide or direct students to resources that address the needs outlined by students. Integrating wellness into the student experience through staff referrals and collaboration among our units can help create the culture that students desire. 

From Kirstin Maanum, MPH | Interim Associate Director Women’s Resource Center (WRC) 

As one of the student-facing resource centers on campus, our staff have seen similar trends that were found with the ACES survey.  The WRC has long been an office addressing the social, emotional and financial needs of students and since COVID-19, we have seen increased need in all of these areas.  Year to date, the WRC counseling team has seen an increase in clinical appointments which projects us to be at double the amount for the last year.  

Despite the challenges of being virtual, we know that our ability to offer services virtuallyparticularly telehealth for counseling—allows greater access for students which they need during this time. We also have heard from many of our students the need for finding new outlets for self-care. Online programs like our monthly yoga sessions have received a great response, and we are working to incorporate the self-care theme into more of our programming. 

Lastly, we know that many students’ financial stress has been compounded by COVID-19.  Lost jobs for students in the service industry, medical costs, health impacts by those who have had COVID or support family members who have had it—all impact students’ ability to support themselves during this time.  We are grateful for the University’s proactive decision to set up an emergency fund for students during this time and we will also advocate for students to get the support they need to reach their academic goals.   

For more information about what resources we offer or how to connect with us, please visit our website www.womenscenter.utah.edu or follow us on social media. 

From Brittany Badger Gleed, PhD(c), CHES | Director CSW 

When our team first reviewed this student-led assessment I was not at all surprised to see the heightened levels of mental health distress our students were reporting. Our students had been sharing with us for months the challenges they were facing. We knew that many students had been forced to isolate and quarantine in unsafe environments, had lost unemployment and financial security, and were attempting to manage school, work and life in an unprecedented way. Stress and feelings of uncertainty, fear and sadness have been chronic and overwhelming. We and many other student service offices knew that mental health challenges were rising among our students and larger campus community.  

What this report does highlight however, is not just the mental health challenges our students are experiencing but the role and impact that belonging and being a part of a community has on our well-being. The more connected we feel, the stronger our support network, and the better able we are to navigate these challenges. A sense of belonging is an incredibly strong protective factor in supporting our wellness.  

We need to acknowledge that the level of connection our students feel varies, and not everyone has support network, especially right now. Our social connections impact how our mental health may manifest. As student service programs, it is imperative that we truly pay attention to these findings and reconsider how we can evolve and innovate our programs to better integrate community building for students at the U.  

We’ve read the research and know how important our social wellness is and how that intersects with various domains of our health, wellness and safety. Unfortunately, we have been placing a higher priority on other urgent issues during this pandemic and while necessary, it’s time for us to rethink how we can equally prioritize rebuilding a strong sense of community and belonging here at the U – whether during a pandemic or not.  

I am inspired by our students and the resilience they have. As a U community and as staff, I hope we can also do our part to centralize the importance of belonging within our work and our programs. We will come out a more resilient and thriving U community if we do.