Focusing on student mental health as we return to ‘normal’

Amy Sosne

All schools face the huge task of engaging young adults and children and making them feel like they are part of the community — any community. Everyone faces the onerous task of redefining communities that have been so disrupted and impacted by COVID. Today’s youth have been affected by chronic stressors, many of which have been chronic traumatic experiences.

Even at college age, students’ brains are not fully mature. And now they are processing a whole new world that may be marred by grief — loss of loved ones, loss of what they thought college or their young adulthood would look like, and loss of their feelings of safety and belonging.

All schools and colleges are tasked with the nearly impossible: reaching out to the marginalized, the traumatized, and the victimized, and helping them to restore faith in themselves, find a safe space, and continue to develop and mature.

As Williams students try to return to a pre-pandemic class load, extracurriculars, sports, volunteer work, and hobbies, they are, like all of us, overwhelmed. Many are flooded by the demands, the sensory stimulation of being around lots of people, the packed schedule of being in-person, and then attending activities in-person after classes. There was definite stagnation or regression of the development of the prefrontal cortex, that last part of our brain to develop before age 25, but that which helps with impulse control and behavior, and long-term planning.

How can we possibly expect students to resume activity, behavior, and planning without recognizing this stagnation and possible regression of a critical phase in young adult brain development? Students are both thrilled to have these opportunities again and frustrated and anxious that it seems so much harder now. How did they do all this before? They question: How did we all get up, get dressed (including wearing real pants), pack a bag, and go out the door in the morning and see people all day? Well… that required decision making and future planning, which we are a little out of practice with in the pandemic.

In returning to the new “normal,” educational institutions and workplaces need to consistently offer space and time for individuals to reacclimate and to recognize that they are getting over a long, chronic stress response (and still somewhat in one) and working themselves back up to a desired level of social interaction, academics, and extracurricular schedule, which may be different then pre-pandemic. Time should be spent at every age level on rebuilding social/emotional skills and a sense of community, trust, as well as acceptance and coping skills that include self-care, self compassion, and lack of judgment and comparison to “what was, what should have been, and where I should be now.”

There is this emphasis to push students to take the whole academic load and re-engage in extracurricular activities, but there is not the pause to acknowledge that students need to reflect, catch their breath, and learn coping skills to help them heal from the past 1.5 years. Would we tell a track runner who broke his/her leg and was in a cast for six weeks to start running the same distance that he/she was prior to the injury? Would we expect that they would be just as fast? No. Why are physical injuries allowed to be rehabbed and coddled but not injuries to the mental health and wellness of individuals?

Yes, children and young adults are more flexible than us older folks, but it should not be shocking that children and young adults, particularly college-aged students are struggling with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder from the pandemic (loss of loved ones, chronic food insecurity, chronic stress and traumatic conditions), depression, anxiety, phobias (agoraphobia in particular), increased obsessive compulsive disorder symptoms, increase in eating disorder symptoms or newly developed eating disorder — the list goes on. The percentage of individuals requiring mental health services has increased astronomically in the past 1.5 years.

Williams College is in an elite percentage of the population that is supposedly able to provide (and still with supply difficulty) mental health services for all of its students. These students are students for four years. What happens when these students graduate and they have relied on the accessibility of such resources and they do not go back to a privileged background, and they have not planned for their exact future (since the maturity of the prefrontal cortex has been challenged in the pandemic)? Have students learned coping skills that they can practice on their own? Shouldn’t the College be focused equally on developing social and emotional skills and tools for them to feel self-empowered when they are outside of the resource bubble?

Community-based severe mental health prevention and addiction prevention result in longer-term health and wellbeing of individuals and communities. It would be strategic for Williams College to focus on social and emotional learning, coping skills, mindfulness skills, self-soothing skills, and community bonding skills, to help with successful maturation and development of skills related to impulse and behavioral control, future plans and goal setting.

To do this, something has to give. Students need to know that their mental health — and these coping mechanisms and activities such as yoga, mindfulness walks, and working in the surrounding communities — are priorities. Maybe this means three academic classes a semester for now and one class or project that further develops social and emotional skills, self-empowerment, feelings of fulfillment, confidence in decision-making, and the future after Williams. Students need to be immersed in the surrounding communities while at Williams to continue to identify, reflect, and problem solve on real-world inequalities, tasks, disillusions, and to be able to learn while they have the support from Integrative Wellbeing Services, coaches, professors, and peers on how to cope with anger, frustration, sadness, and anxiety that is inevitable when seeing the complexities in our society.

Once students graduate from Williams, they will not have guaranteed access to the same array of resources. Williams strives for diversity, equity, and inclusion, but we also need to make sure that all students can leave Williams equipped with the support and self-care skills that they will need as they reenter into a society that is not Williams, that is not necessarily equal and accessible for health care, housing, and food. It’s important for students to immerse themselves into the larger community and develop a sense that they are a part of something and making a difference. And among the many skills the College fosters should be coping skills and self-soothing skills. That way, Williams graduates can be equipped to take on the challenges of the world beyond the Purple Bubble.

Amy Sosne ’05 is the North Adams Coordinator for Williams Elementary Outreach at the Center for Learning in Action.