OPINION: Lonely, left out and isolated post-pandemic, our college students need personal attention

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Ask any college president, and they will likely tell you the biggest challenge they face — more than the broken business model, the enrollment cliff and even affordability issues — is the mental health crisis.

Student mental health is in a fragile and dangerous place on our campuses. Fewer than 40 percent  of students say they are flourishing, according to the national Healthy Minds Study. Over 40 percent report some form of depression, while 37 percent live with anxiety.

Since 2007, suicidal ideation has more than doubled and now impacts 14 percent  of students. Each of these statistics is heartbreaking, especially when you know that students are often reluctant to seek help.  

Campuses are struggling to provide enough counseling services, due to financial reasons and a shortage of professionals in the field, and the outcome can be dropping out of school or, much worse, the tragedy of lost lives.

Our dramatic mental health crisis is cause for colleges and universities to reimagine how they support students.

Related: A surprising remedy for teens in mental health crises

Some colleges and universities — including my institution, Hollins University — use a public health approach. That includes establishing early alert systems, providing mental health first aid training to faculty and staff and increasing group therapy.

These efforts are designed for triage and to ensure the highest levels of care are available to those with the greatest needs. But we must also find ways to be present and support our students in daily moments, human moments.

For many students, technology is a major contributor to health and wellness concerns. Long before the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory about the perils of social media for young people, we knew about its negative effect on the mental well-being of young women.

Having led two colleges for women, I have seen this firsthand, with incessant bullying and dangerous calling out  on social media leading to a loss of confidence and feelings of inadequacy.

A generation that has experienced active shooter drills, a pandemic lockdown, rampant racism, sexism, homophobia and a democracy far from its best needed a moment to simply be cared for.

However, as a president deeply engaged with students and often a confidant and witness to their struggles, I wanted to do more than provide resources and create policies — as critical as those processes are.

I quickly realized that what was missing for many students was connection to others in their lives. The Healthy Minds Study found that over 65 percent of students report loneliness, defined as lack of companionship and feeling left out or isolated.

While I could not disrupt the biochemical or social processes that trigger many mental health issues, I recognized that I could help students create connections to others and feel less lonely.

I began to ponder ways we could curate environments where we could be intensely human together.

We tried a few things, each of which had some success. Our “Sundaes on Sunday” brought students to our equestrian center where they got to spend a few hours eating ice cream and engaging with horses.

The majority who joined me had never been close to a horse. We bonded over the calm presence of animals, shared awe and simply spending time away from screens and with one another.

Next came game nights where we sat and played board games. With lots of snacks, no phones and a spirit of friendly competition, we hung out, played and chatted. While we talked about stress, we also reduced our stress.

Hands down, our most successful endeavor was bedtime stories. I am pretty sure that most reasonable people would suggest that reading bedtime stories to college students is a bad idea.

They might call it infantilizing and coddling or say that students wouldn’t be interested or that it is not a good use of presidential time.

All of these are very good criticisms. I did it anyway.

To be clear, Hollins may be uniquely situated for a venture like this. After all, Margaret Wise Brown, the author of what is arguably the best-known children’s bedtime book, “Goodnight Moon,”is a graduate.

English and creative writing are among our signature majors. We even have a graduate program in children’s literature and illustration.

But even with that context, no one thought bedtime stories would resonate.

Undeterred, we ordered hot cocoa, set up a yule log and told students to don pajamas, bring their blankets, a friend and, if they liked, a stuffed animal.

Students came, sat around tables, and I began reading. By the third page of Brown’s “Runaway Bunny,” I heard the first sob. By the time I finished it, we were all in tears.

We read other books and cried more. We recovered as we closed, reciting “Goodnight Moon” together, but the power of the emotional release throughout the reading was unforgettable. The group doubled in size for the next bedtime stories.

Related: STUDENT VOICE: After confronting mental health struggles in college, I’m now helping others

What our students needed was someone to connect with them, to let them be young people free of the demands of the world and technology. A generation that has experienced active shooter drills, a pandemic lockdown, rampant racism, sexism, homophobia and a democracy far from its best needed a moment to simply be cared for.

They needed to spend a few moments recalling when, for many, life was simpler and connection everywhere. They needed to be emotionally nourished.

To be clear, bedtime stories are not a solution to the mental health crisis. They do, however, show that we can disrupt loneliness with the simplest of efforts, and that the deep human connections are perhaps more valuable now than ever.

Mary Dana Hinton became the 13th president of Hollins University in Virginia in 2020 and is president emerita of the College of Saint Benedict.

This story about the student mental health crisis was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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