While the pandemic has left no industry untouched, the past year has set unprecedented levels of stress for health sciences. Adding to that, it’s no secret that there’s an increased need for more robust healthcare staffing. Thankfully, health science students are staying the course to fill the gaps of an understaffed workforce. However, while health science students are pursuing careers where they will support the health needs of others, they also need support for their own health needs, including their mental well-being. 

Besides keeping up with a challenging workload and maintaining solid academic standing, health science students have the added pressure of preparing for rigorous clinical site rotation and residency programs. Particularly during stressful times, students need the support of university mental health programs to help them pursue their educational and professional goals.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Student Mental Health

For many, college life can be full of mental health hazards. Living in a new environment away from home, taking challenging classes, and managing the everyday stressors associated with moving into adulthood can make life stressful for college students. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, with its social distancing, quarantine, and testing requirements at some schools, only makes matters worse. College students surveyed by Strada in Fall 2020 said a combination of stress, anxiety, and loneliness was their number one challenge so far in the school year.

Health science students face additional challenges during stressful times. On top of their everyday workload, they may have more stressful experiences dealing with COVID-19 than other students. Some may even find themselves on the front lines of the pandemic, particularly if they participate in rotation or residencies at hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. 

Such experiences can be enough to put students’ mental health to the test. In fact, a recent study on the mental health impact of COVID-19 on medical students found 46 percent were experiencing symptoms of anxiety, and 64 percent had symptoms of depression.

The Importance of Supporting Student Mental Health

Even before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several studies found that students pursuing healthcare degrees often experience higher levels of stress, burnout, and mental health crises than other students. For some, these issues can carry over into their professional lives. According to research published in Medscape, physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession

Supporting the mental health needs of all students is essential, but for health science students, it can also have important implications for clinical care settings and their long-term ability to build a successful career. Poor mental health among health science students can impact the following areas:

  • Quality of patient care: Individuals struggling with their mental health may have difficulty staying focused in clinical settings. A meta-analysis published in JAMA found medical interns, residents, and physicians who were depressed made a higher rate of medical errors. Nurses represent the largest group of patient-facing practitioners and, according to an analysis published in NCBI, the high burnout nature of this profession can cause patients to be deprived of adequate care
  • Student experiences at clinical sites: When students are anxious, burned out, or have poor mental well-being, they can’t make the most of their training experiences and can experience gaps in learning.
  • The availability of future healthcare professionals: Health science students who can’t overcome their mental health issues may fail to complete their training or decide against pursuing a health science profession altogether.

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Ways to Promote Mental Well-Being Among Health Science Students

To prevent the negative outcomes of poor mental health, it’s important to take a preventative approach to supporting students. With the help of college and university health centers, students can be connected to resources, tools, and qualified professionals who can help them manage stress effectively. 

Here are five ways to promote mental well-being among health science students. 

Gauge student mental health concerns and assess possible causes.

Before taking steps to address the mental health needs of students, it’s essential to first identify the key areas of concern and the top sources of stress. Student stress levels can be impacted by many factors, including:

  • Workload
  • Financial concerns
  • Relationships with others 
  • Lack of knowledge about available support services
  • Reduced opportunities to socialize with peers

To get at the heart of students’ top concerns, use surveys and assessments such as the Healthy Minds Study or the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment. Assessment results can help mental health professionals and university support systems understand how students are feeling and what contributes to their mental health challenges. From there, it will be easier to establish a targeted plan for addressing problem areas.

Demonstrate empathy and flexibility.

During stressful times, students can benefit from policy and curriculum changes offering greater flexibility. When students have support from faculty and others to manage their workload and still meet academic requirements, they are likely to experience less burnout. For example, faculty members can look for ways to connect with their students in person and virtually, and offer additional accommodations where needed. 

Students can also benefit from changes aimed at building more flexibility into curricula, schedules, and grading systems. According to a report by the American Council on Education, some universities have begun giving students alternative, personalized grading options during the pandemic, allowing them to select a credit/no credit or pass/fail grade instead of semester letter grades.

Similarly, health science students can benefit from solutions designed to streamline the process of preparing for clinical rotation and residency programs. By providing a smooth process for submitting health and wellness information—including immunization records, health histories, and authorization forms—you can remove a potential source of stress and anxiety.

Remind students of available support.

Though there may be many mental health resources on and off-campus, students may not always be aware of what’s available or where to find it. Therefore, it’s critical to use multiple channels—postings in dorms and student centers, mobile push notifications, and online information hubs—to remind students how to get mental health support when they need it. 

Some of the information and resources to keep accessible for students include:

  • Referrals for therapy or group counseling
  • Support groups
  • On-campus health center resources
  • Telehealth and telemedicine resources

Build a community for dialogue, even if it’s virtual.

Students experiencing stress and anxiety can benefit from opportunities to collaborate and share their experiences with others. Often, having a sense of community and peers who are available to listen helps students cope and provides an outlet for releasing pent-up emotions.

Although in-person activities may be few during a pandemic, students can still build a sense of community virtually. Some community-building activities to support student mental health include:

  • Group chats and video calls organized around specific topics
  • Informal video get-togethers and movie nights 
  • Virtual study groups

Provide self-help resources.

Although there are many group activities available to students with mental health concerns, it’s equally important to empower students to help themselves. Students who have resources to manage their day-to-day mental well-being can take small actions throughout the day to keep calm and avoid becoming overwhelmed. 

For example, students can benefit from using mindfulness apps and trying new strategies for improving their study habits and time management. Some health science students use the Pomodoro study method to study mindfully and avoid coursework-related stress.

Empower Students During Stressful Times

There is a great deal university health centers can do to support students who are struggling to manage their mental well-being. While some mental health concerns require the intervention of mental health professionals, not all do. 

By providing students with opportunities to connect with others in meaningful ways and play a role in managing their own mental health, universities can help students find academic success during stressful times. A great way to start is to offer them a stress-free way to submit immunization and other health data, so they can get a head start in meeting clinical rotation and residency site requirements. 

For more ideas, read our guide, Improving Immunization Compliance: A Guide for Your Clinical Programs.

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