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Improving Student Mental Health During the COVID-19 Crisis

Six ways students can promote their mental health in the coronavirus pandemic.

Today is the first day of spring, which is traditionally a time of hope, growth, and renewal. However, the coronavirus pandemic has cast a gloomy shadow over the start of spring, with more and more people diagnosed with COVID-19 and an increasing number of fatalities.

Consequently, extreme measures are being put in place to contain the virus. Cities have gone into lockdown and workers are being advised to work from home. Sporting events and music concerts have been canceled, and venues for socializing such as pubs, bars, and theatres have closed.

Of note, more than 200 college and university campuses across North America have temporarily closed and this list appears to grow by the day. It is uncertain when these campuses will reopen, with many universities considering a move to online courses for the foreseeable future.

All this may be causing great anxiety and concern for students, a demographic already vulnerable to mental health issues, which may be made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Student Mental Health

The National College Health Assessment indicates that around one in four students suffers from a diagnosable mental illness, while a much greater proportion report feeling overwhelmed (around 70 percent) or very lonely (around 60 percent). These figures overlap with other recent surveys. For example, a recent YouGov survey found that 29 percent of millennials always or often felt lonely and 27 percent had no close friends.

Of note, spring can be a particularly anxious and lonely time for college and university students. April can contain a series of grueling make-or-break final exams, and many final-year students will be frantically searching the job market with uncertainty about the future.

Importantly, mental health research indicates that routine and structure can foster positive mental health and psychological resilience. As such, the closure of campuses and cancellation of classes, combined with admonitions to stay at home and avoid social contact may hit students hard.

This may be exacerbated by legitimate worries about the virus and the health of self, family, and friends. Stripped of their collegiate activities, opportunities for socializing, and comforting routines, students may need to take innovative measures to protect their mental health during this crisis.

What Can Be Done?

A large body of evidence indicates that certain activities can protect mental health and enhance psychological resilience. Some of these may be particularly suited to the student population. Six potential activities are given below which may help isolated and vulnerable students stuck at home.

First, exercise has been consistently linked to positive mental health. While gyms may be closed, there are numerous exercise activities that can be conducted at home. These include yoga, dancing, and workouts. There are numerous YouTube channels and websites that can guide people in this regard, including the UK National Health Service exercise website.

Second, a good night’s sleep is associated with good student mental health. Such sleep may be difficult for those anxious about COVID-19, especially as media reports and social media feeds may be sensationalist and apocalyptic. As such, diminishing screen time and media consumption during the evening may help with sleep. Likewise, the aforementioned exercise can help facilitate a good night’s sleep.

Third, a lack of structure and worry about COVID-19 can prompt a change in eating habits, which can affect mental health. As such, individual students may need to take concerted action to ensure they eat normally during the crisis. This could be a good time to try new recipes and boost the immune system through healthy eating at regular intervals.

Fourth, social activity has been linked to positive mental health. There are various forms of mediated social activity that may be appealing to students interested in continuing their learning. This can include online book clubs, talk-radio call-in programs, and online language exchange programs where students can practice a second language for free.

Fifth, COVID-19 has led to the suspension of some in-person counseling services. That said, there are numerous online counseling services available for students. For example, Keep.meSAFE is a mental health counseling service for students with 24/7 access to licensed counselors by telephone and online chat. This may help students in distress.

Sixth, many religious organizations have canceled services due to COVID-19. Private religious activities such as prayer have been associated with positive mental health, and religiously-inclined students may consider building such activities into their daily routines. Non-religious students could consider cognate spiritual activities such as meditation and mindfulness.

The above list is not exhaustive, and students should tailor their activities to their own specific interests. Other potentially helpful activities can be gleaned from the short video below, where students describe how they protect their own mental health, including interviews with leading experts Dr. Nancy Heath (McGill University) and Dr. Erin Barker (Concordia University).


COVID-19 has cast a vast shadow over the whole of society. That said, the start of spring does not need to be all doom and gloom. Students can engage in a variety of activities that can protect their mental health and enhance their psychological resilience.

Such activities may lead to some small shoots of hope, growth, and renewal—all of which are desperately needed in this time of COVID-19 crisis.

More from Rob Whitley, Ph.D.
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