Managing Your Students' Mental Health During Emergencies

Osmosis Team
Published on Apr 14, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

As an educator, you have a responsibility to support your health professions students' mental health during times of crisis. In today's post, Leah Tieger, a writer on the Osmosis team, shares strategies for supporting your students during difficult periods.

For health professions students, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a sudden shift to 100% online coursework. This transition alone is stressful. Yet, as they confront the toll of social distancing, students are simultaneously grappling with the stark realities of a public health crisis—one that significantly impacts their training and future careers. Given these unprecedented circumstances, students will likely need additional support to maintain their mental health in the coming weeks. 

As a health professions educator, you’re often the first line of defense when it comes to student wellbeing. You may even have a well-developed toolkit of mental health resources. If you’re looking to expand your resources, or you’re searching for fresh ideas, you’ve come to the right place. Here are four tips to consider as you manage your students’ mental health through this, and any other, crisis: 

One: Explicitly Acknowledge that Providing Healthcare is Stressful

Healthcare is inherently stressful, and your students probably already know this fact. Explicitly acknowledging your shared stress, however, is a great way to manage students’ mental health. Academic performance depends on student wellbeing, even in the best of times. Providing your students with an evidence-based approach to stress management can support their success:

  • In their meta-analysis of seven clinical trials and four observational studies, Journal of Clinical Medicine contributors affirmed that yoga prevents and reduces both physical and mental health issues in healthcare workers. It also improved sleep quality and reduced instances of burnout.

  • Another meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, reviewed 81 studies charting the impact of mindfulness on healthcare professionals. Overall, mindfulness practice reduced burnout, anxiety, depression, and stress.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Osmosis is providing distance learning support along with guided yoga and meditation events that may be helpful to your students. Ultimately, by owning the reality that no one is immune to the psychological toll of providing care, you can validate your students’ experience and create an opportunity for them to process their concerns. Even if their feelings are not the same as yours, you’re still modeling the idea that talking about emotions is a necessary part of providing high-quality healthcare to patients.

Two: Frequent Check-Ins

You wouldn’t be an educator if you didn’t care about your students—that part goes without saying. Frequent check-ins during a crisis communicate that you care, and it may be helpful to consider that mental health is sometimes a lot like physical health. Where the severity of a physical ailment dictates the level of intervention, the same adage can be applied here. In other words, when stress levels are higher, the visible dose of caring that educators provide to their students should also be higher. You want to show your students that you have their backs.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Inside Higher Ed offers several helpful tips to do just that. Here are a few highlights you may want to implement:

  • Email your students and state that you are there for them.

  • Ask your students how you can help or support them.

  • When balancing your twin roles as an educator and support system, now is the time to favor the latter.

  • Adjust your expectations of academic rigor and student performance for the time being.

  • Communicate how you are adjusting your schedule to accommodate distance learning.

Three: Highlight Existing Resources

When students come to you for mental and emotional support, it’s a good idea to direct them to the resources that serve them best. Your students may not be aware of all of the mental health resources your school has to offer. Counseling, for instance, may be available through student health services. Your program may also include a wellbeing office, dedicated mental health center, or campus support groups. Near-peer mentorship programs are another source of support. Additional resources include:

Not every student will require counseling. Some may simply struggle to study while in quarantine. If that’s the case, this link may be useful.

Four: Destigmatize Mental Illness & Praise Help-Seeking Behavior

As an educator, you can destigmatize your students’ mental health challenges by modeling appropriate disclosure. By sharing that you, a friend, or a loved one has faced a mental health challenge and successfully sought help, you encourage your students to do the same. It can be challenging to ask for help, especially since some students may see it as a sign of weakness. In fact, the opposite is true! Acknowledging the need for help, and asking for it, are both signs of strength. 

Help-seeking behaviors can take many forms. Some students may request access to mental health services outright, others might hint that they’re struggling. Some may ask for your advice regarding a particular challenge. Regardless of how directly or indirectly your students may seek help, they’re more likely to do so if the process is destigmatized.

That’s why explicit acknowledgement, frequent check-ins, resource awareness, and appropriate disclosure are key. These actions help students turn to you in times of crisis; but, they also model healthy coping mechanisms for healthcare professionals, which is conduct your students can adopt throughout their own careers. 

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