Improving Student Mental Health Through Virtual Socialization

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Wednesday, January 20, 2021
By Charles Knippen
Photo by iStock/Violeta Stoimenova
Social interactions are key to promoting students’ well-being on-campus—they are even more important in virtual learning environments.

For college students, the on-campus experience has always been about more than coursework. Among the most rewarding parts of attending college on campus are the lifelong friendships students form with their peers through their participation in clubs and other organizations. Social interaction with peers, faculty, and staff also plays an essential role in delivering well-rounded learning experiences and promoting students’ overall well-being.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic forced educational institutions and organizations to transition their academic programming to virtual formats in a matter of weeks, few had an opportunity also to address the psychological impact an isolated and quarantined college experience could have on students. If ever there was a time to check on our community’s mental health, that time is now.

As president of the National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS), I must prioritize the well-being of our members—students and alumni at more than 700 colleges and universities across the United States. As part of our efforts in this direction, in November, we conducted a survey of our members currently enrolled in college. We asked them questions about their circumstances and expectations, as well as about the emotional impact online learning was having on their emotional state.

We received more than 3,000 responses, which provided us with a clearer picture of the impact virtual learning has been having on students’ mental health. Their responses also have helped us better understand how to design and deliver virtual experiences that integrate opportunities into their programs for students to socialize outside the classroom and help them feel less isolated. In the process, we can help them feel more connected to their larger campus community—even when they’re learning online.

Optimism About Course Delivery

When we asked students to report on their current circumstances, 75 percent of them reported that they attended classes virtually during the fall. Of course, most had no other choice since many states enforced mandatory lockdowns for most of the year. Some schools offered only a limited number of courses on campus, while others delivered all courses online.

After the rapid transition to remote learning in the spring, more than 90 percent of respondents were confident that their universities were prepared to deliver courses in the fall 2020 semester. Nearly 80 percent said they had the tools to remain engaged with their educational experience. Only 17 percent were not confident in their universities’ plans to return students to campus for the spring 2021 semester.

We also asked them how virtual learning was affecting their outlook about their future after college. Only 12 percent of our student respondents lacked confidence that they would find jobs after graduation, indicating that, despite the year's disruptions, most institutions kept students motivated to achieve post-collegiate success.

The Impact of Virtual Learning on Mental Health

But while most students were confident in their universities’ academic response to the pandemic, more than 50 percent reported that they were not having enough social interactions with their peers, despite their institutions’ best efforts. This is especially troubling because many students already were facing mental health issues before the pandemic. According to an article in Inside Higher Ed, the sense of isolation brought on by the crisis has only made these issues worse.  

For instance, according to a survey conducted by the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium, roughly one-third of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students screened during the summer of 2020 were found to have depression, anxiety, or both. When the researchers narrowed their focus to only graduate and professional students, they found that 32 percent met the criteria for major depressive disorder, more than two times higher than the report found in 2019.

While most students were confident in their universities’ academic response to the pandemic, more than 50 percent reported that they were not having enough social interactions with their peers, despite their institutions’ best efforts.

The NSLS survey reveals similar results. Roughly 28 percent of respondents reported that mental health was the biggest issue they faced during the past year. Additionally, about 25 percent of respondents listed financial stability as their biggest concern, which would also negatively impact their stress levels, mental health, and class performance.

We have found that when virtual programming provides students with more opportunities to socialize with their peers, some of the negative effects of virtual learning can be mitigated. In addition, virtual socialization allows students to develop interpersonal skills needed in the modern workplace and inspires them to achieve great things beyond graduation.

Designing Virtual Social Interactions

Having successfully made the transition to online learning, schools now can make it a priority to integrate social interactions in their programs—in many cases, they can take advantage of online platforms they already have in place.

For example, before the pandemic, the NSLS had placed various components of its leadership program online. Once we were living in a fully virtual world, we expanded that model into our Live Online program, which provides chapters with an interactive speaker series, breakout sessions, and networking opportunities. During 2020, we offered a Leading from Home webinar series in the spring, hosted two virtual Leadership Summit conferences in the fall, and delivered our fall Speaker Broadcast series that included Matthew McConaughey, Neil Patrick Harris, Bill Nye, and others. We have found that such events benefited students by giving them opportunities not only to learn from thought leaders, but also to connect with peers even while they learned remotely.

We also have continued our Success Networking Team (SNT) meetings. Usually held in person, these meetings have been virtual since the start of the pandemic. Formed early in the semester, SNTs include four to six student members from within the same chapter. At these meetings, held at least three times each semester, team members share with each other the challenges they face, set individual goals, and give each other support and advice. They have provided our members with opportunities to connect with their communities.

Students noted that virtual opportunities for engagement gave them the ability to support others and helped them remain positive even as they worked through a variety of challenges.

In our survey, many respondents noted that such online tools designed to connect them with others helped them get through the challenges they faced in 2020. For instance, Mallory Weaver, who is pursuing a master’s in integrated marketing communications at West Virginia University, said that the most valuable skill she learned during the past year was “the act of networking [and] putting myself out there.”

Additionally, Bridget Toomey from Johns Hopkins University said, “As a leader, it is important to check on people’s well-being… and also to be a support system for their work and personal lives.”

Similarly, other students reported that the virtual opportunities for engagement had had a positive impact on them during the past year. Many of their responses shared common themes, such as an appreciation for having the ability to be there for others and network to prepare for their careers. They also noted that these events helped them remain positive even as they worked through a variety of challenges.

The Importance of Virtual Socialization

Understandably, most of us are eager to put 2020 behind us. However, the last year has pushed us to develop resilience and adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Among other things, we learned how we could bring students together in ways that supported their mental development as much as their academic and professional development.

Even after vaccines for COVID-19 are readily available, delivering virtual events and learning will remain integral to the college experience. By providing social interactions online, schools can contribute to students’ mental well-being and sense of connection with their peers. When we ensure that students maintain relationships with their peers, faculty, and staff, we help them become more resilient, confident, and optimistic leaders who are prepared to make the world a better place—even during times of adversity.

Charles Knippen
President, National Society of Leadership and Success
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