The pandemic has upended our lives not once but many times. A college student returning to campus last fall may have had to adjust to wearing a mask in public spaces, sitting in an assigned seat for her in-person classes, getting tested for the coronavirus frequently to determine if she could participate in athletics practice and quarantining if she were exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus. All of this is on top of the normal pressures of college life. As the stressors pile up, it’s no wonder that students are experiencing COVID fatigue.
Concerned staff from public and private colleges came together this winter to collaborate and think through the challenge of COVID fatigue, all with an aim to identify responses and resources for better supporting students. Encouraged to form by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), the group began sharing its work in March.
“COVID fatigue is real. It's important to think both about how it affects our behavior and how mental health behaviors can help protect us from fatigue,” said Julie Zaruba Fountaine, wellness coordinator at The College of St. Scholastica. Fountaine was one of the work group’s four conveners, along with Jennifer Jacobsen, director of sexual violence prevention education at Macalester College; Janet Lewis Muth, director of health promotion at Carleton College; and Megan Perry-Spears, dean of students at The College of St. Scholastica.
As a result of their work, the team pulled together “COVID-19 Fatigue and Hopeful Realism,” a document that includes resources to help campuses tackle COVID fatigue and communicate both hopefully and realistically with their communities. And more than 200 higher ed staff heard a presentation on the work during a late March MDH call.
This kind of collaboration around key COVID-19 implications has been going on in Minnesota since last spring, when the first work groups of higher ed staff members formed. Several remain active, including ones addressing racial and ethnic disparities, planning for academics next fall, planning for student activities next fall, strong student-faculty bonds and vaccination efforts.
“These workgroups are essential to sharing information and approaches that address the needs and concerns of higher education in Minnesota,” said Cynthia Kenyon, MDH epidemiologist supervisor and lead for higher ed planning at the agency. “Their work also helps the state know how best to support continued efforts around COVID-19 mitigation.”
Perry-Spears explained that the typical experience that individuals encounter during a transition can move from enthusiasm (“I’m so happy to be back on campus!”) to culture shock (“... but everything’s changed”) to an initial adjustment, followed by doubts (“I don’t know if I can handle this; I don’t even know what I want anymore”) before finally reaching a new equilibrium. She described it as a “W-Curve,” as developed by academic researchers William Zeller and Robert Mosier.
Understanding the W-Curve can help people realize that what they are going through is normal, Perry-Spears noted. And people need to be intentional as they progress through the dips in the curve, especially when there are many overlapping transitions. When students are going through a period of doubts, she said, “faculty can tell them this is understandable and normal and help them refocus.” Campus leaders also can help ease a transition by being transparent about what they know and don’t know about a situation, such as a change in the coronavirus transmission rate on campus.
To consider the mental health implications, Muth references Corey Keyes’ model, which defines mental health not only in terms of the presence or absence of diagnosable mental illness but also whether an individual is languishing or flourishing. While mental health on campus is always a concern, Muth noted reports of students experiencing increased anxiety and depression since the pandemic began. Unfortunately, there has not been a corresponding increase in the number of students seeking help.
The team recommends that colleges and universities take three steps to address mental illness. First, they should identify campus resources available to students and employees. Second, they should select and implement a “recognize and refer” training program, which can help employees recognize when someone might be struggling and refer them to appropriate resources. Finally, institutions can embrace messaging that helps reduce the stigma around asking for help.
To address the flourishing-languishing continuum, the team referred to portions of an article about mental health in a pandemic from The Journal of Positive Psychology. The document focuses on four mental well-being skills that colleges can promote. Muth pointed out that lots of campuses are already promoting one of those skills: connectedness. Colleges can help students by articulating the importance of connectedness and how campus events, even on Zoom, can foster that.
Two additional skills that boost mental well-being are pursuing meaning and purpose and recognizing and validating character strengths. The document includes prompts on meaning and purpose that students can use in journaling, in group discussions or as part of an art project. In the area of character strengths, the group recommends that we should not only recognize our own strengths but also let classmates or colleagues know about the strengths we see in them. “It can be powerful for the person you’re observing to hear their strengths and contributions being validated,” Muth said.
The final skill that can help people flourish is self-compassion. Muth prefers that term to “self-care,” which is sometimes used to justify behavior that ultimately hurts us. “Binging on Netflix is a good example,” she said. “In the moment it feels good, but 12 hours later, we haven’t accomplished anything, and we’re sleep deprived. Now instead of having managed our stress load, we’ve added to it. Self-compassion gives us a lens to recognize, ‘I don’t need to pretend like I’m not having a rough day and just soldier through it. I’m allowed to step away from my computer and go for a bike ride today, but when I get back, I need to finish that paper that’s due tomorrow.’”
Vaccinations and afterward
The importance of hopeful realism is especially clear in the portion of the document that focuses on vaccines and post-vaccine behavior. Jacobsen pointed out that people are less motivated to get vaccinated against the coronavirus when the only message they hear is “nothing changes” post-vaccination. It’s important to balance messages about continuing to wear a mask and maintain physical distancing in public with messages about the private benefits of vaccination, such as being able to hug a grandparent. Faculty, coaches, work supervisors and other campus leaders can also help students and employees overcome barriers to vaccination by expressing vaccine enthusiasm and considering vaccine appointments as an excused absence.
As higher education institutions – and their students – think ahead to next fall, Fountaine notes how most of us want to get back to what feels normal. But we will need to continue to follow guidelines from the CDC and MDH, she noted. It’s particularly important for campus leaders to communicate this to students, who may be coming from states with different health guidelines.
The key is to take COVID fatigue seriously while recognizing that we have a realistic reason to be hopeful. The team emphasized the need for campus leaders to stay balanced between the seriousness of the situation and having a sense of hope. When leaders plan proactively for the challenges of COVID fatigue and communicate transparently with campus communities, they can help both students and employees weather the storm.