What Teachers Need to Know About Students’ Post-COVID Mental Health

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When I concluded teaching two wonderful undergraduate seminars just a few weeks ago, many of my students were not in a good place. Virtual teaching during a global pandemic led to some spectacular teaching moments and opportunities to examine the nation and its diversity as students lived through intense political history in many unique places. But the remote environment that afforded such moments also left many of my students burnt out and struggling by the end of the term. Three physically interrupted virtual semesters during the COVID-19 pandemic produced incredible amounts of stress and feelings of isolation. Our students should be lauded for trying, and in many cases, succeeding, to make distance education work and work well.

As the nation reopens and in-person socialization begins once again, I want to share some good news with a warning: the health of those in Gen Z – my students whose ages range from 18 through 24 – is drastically improving. However, colleges and universities must be aware that our Gen Z students are in far worse shape than the many Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and Silent generation professors that teach them. As one student in Inside Higher Education’s Student Voice Survey sadly observed, “No one actively reaches out and makes sure students are doing OK, and no one takes action to address the root causes of the issues. No matter how anxious or depressed you are, that paper’s still due on Friday.” My own students would come to me with stories that work often became more intense in many classes because it was assumed by professors that there was more time to read, research and write with little recognition of the difficulties that the pandemic was creating.

Sentiments of this sort have been all too common on both virtual and in-person campuses in the past year. Thus, it is critical that those of us in higher education be aware of where our students are mentally as campuses reopen in person this fall. If we ignore the mental strain students face, academic slide and a depression epidemic among young people could continue even as the pandemic fades from memory.

Recent data from AEI’s Survey Center of American Life’s new report, The State of American Friendship, shows substantial improvement in outlook and attitude among Gen Z Americans over the past year. Last May, a disturbingly high 61% of Gen Z Americans regularly felt lonely or isolated. That number has dropped to 31% today. A year ago, about half of Gen Zers reported feeling depressed a few times a week or more often. One year later, the number is down to 28% - a decrease of forty-two percent.

As many schools prepare to reopen and re-think their COVID-19 safety protocols, I want to note that even with these improvements in mental health among college-aged Americans, Gen Zers are still struggling relative to other generations. Baby Boomers and Silent Generation members – those in their 60s and late 70s respectively – are today half as likely to report feeling depressed compared to Gen Zers; 18% of Boomers and 16% of Silents, compared to 28% of Gen Zers. The parents of Gen Zers, Gen Xers - who are in their 40s and 50s – report lower rates of depression, around 19%. Moreover, disparities in loneliness are less severe but nonetheless considerable – 23% of Gen Xers, 19% of Boomers, and 23% of Silents say they are lonely compared to 31% of Gen Zers.

The new AEI data also show that Gen Z Americans are more anxious than their older counterparts. Today, 40% of Gen Zers report feeling anxious at least a few times a week or more often while barely half of Boomers (22%) and Silents (18%) feel the same way. A quarter of Gen Zer’s parents – the Gen Xers – report feeling anxious on a weekly basis or more often. Moreover, a little under a third of Gen Zers (26%) report feeling that they have no one that they can count on – notably more than the 18% of their Gen X parents or their Boomer (16%) or Silent grandparents (17%).

The empirical reality is simple: the number of college-age Americans who report feeling lonely, isolated, and depressed has monumentally decreased over the past year. This trend will hopefully continue as the summer months allow for more socialization and more Americans are vaccinated. However, the data underscores the reality of the decline of mental health during the global pandemic and exposes the large number of younger Americans still struggling.

Even as the pandemic wanes, the mental health levels of Gen Z remain behind those of older generational cohorts. With college students eager to resume in-person learning this fall, professors and parents alike must recognize that the trauma and challenges students faced during the pandemic often exceeded those challenges they faced themselves. As the fall semester approaches, despite not being medical professionals or necessarily aware of the daily health struggles and routines of our students, professors and parents ought to pay closer attention to their students’ wellbeing. A little flexibility and empathy may go a long way as both the nation and our college campuses heal and move forward.

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