A team of UNC graduate students and their professor are working to understand the challenges UNC students are facing, and finding ways to help students build resilience and wellness.

In the spring of 2020, students found themselves faced with two life-changing events: a pandemic and a social justice movement. Crowded hospitals, death counts, protests, systemic racism and food lines took center stage in the public eye, but a shadow pandemic of mental health implications paralleled those events. College students lost connections with friends and support networks, found themselves isolated within the virtual grid of Zoom classes, worried about loved ones and worked to make sense of and address systemic racism and trauma, all while trying to focus on their studies.  

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic, up from 1 in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019. The foundation also reports that “during the pandemic, a larger than average share of young adults (ages 18-24) report symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder (56%).”  

Laurie Claire Landrieu, a UNC doctoral student in School Psychology, working with Assistant Professor of School Psychology Erin Yosai, Ph.D., recognized early in the pandemic that fellow students were struggling. She and four fellow graduate students working in Yosai’s Wellness in Multi-tiered Systems of School Psychology (WiMSSY) Research Lab wanted to find a way to help.    

“After COVID became this reality, many of them felt passionately about helping in any way they could within their own campus community and in the broader community,” Yosai says.   

School psychologists focus on helping students and their families in a school setting, using cognitive, behavioral, social and emotional assessments and interventions, for an age range from 3 to over 21, encompassing preschool to undergraduate students.   

And it was in that post-secondary group where Yosai and her students chose to focus on addressing the need for understanding during this challenging time. 

Understanding the Challenges

For Yosai, the intersections of higher education, psychology and wellness offer opportunities to help young adults connect with resources that can help them thrive and succeed through college, something she feels a personal connection with.   

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in Psychology at a small liberal arts college in Kansas, Yosai earned her master’s degree in Experimental Psychology at Montana State University before going on to get her Ph.D. in School Psychology at the University of Montana.   

It was during her pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships at the University of Illinois that she became passionate about post-secondary school psychology and began to focus her work on intervention and wellness for college students.  

“I think many of us in human-subjects research are drawn to things we observe and learn about as we grow into our professional identities. That was the case for me,” she says. “Mental health was a struggle of mine as an undergrad, and it affected a lot of aspects of my life. As I continued into my graduate work, I kept finding myself thinking, ‘I wish I would’ve known about different resources on my campus, in my community, so that I could’ve felt more on steady ground.’”  

Asking for help — or understanding mental health and wellness — is difficult for many college students. It may not be something they’ve learned or talked about (particularly for students from rural or underserved areas), and it still carries a stigma, creating a barrier to wellness.   

“Knowing that our mental health has a very important connection to our personal and academic success, it became important for me to focus my research on ways to broaden understanding for young adults and to create learning opportunities so that they could better learn about their own experiences with mental health, advocate for what resources they need, what supports they need. That really led to this research line and a research lab to drive wellness research in all aspects of school life, but especially in mental health intervention and education in a post-secondary setting.”  

Yosai’s WiMSSY Research Lab gives graduate students in School Psychology an opportunity to study “how positive, inclusive and intersectional evidence-based supports can benefit students.”   

Grounded in that understanding, her graduate students began to look for a way to learn how current events were impacting fellow students.   

“I did some research at my undergraduate university on mental-health functioning and coping skills in older adults during things like natural disasters and how that can impact mental-health functioning,” Landrieu says. “I thought, ‘We should track the trends of our student population and see what effect this has and monitor the trends toward this new normal that we all feel ourselves spiraling toward.’”  

The result was the “UNC and Me” project.   

“Laurie Claire has been heading this project, driving the research team, and has been very passionate about getting involved with the campus community and helping in any way she can,” Yosai says.   

Designing a survey was the first step in the process toward exploring how the events surrounding students were affecting their mental and academic health, their decisions to continue at UNC and their awareness of UNC services designed to help them support themselves through this time. 

The Need to Connect

The WiMMSY team started surveying students in March 2020, and about 450 students responded — more than double the usual number of responses.  

“Once we started rolling out the survey,” says Landrieu, “we realized that students want to get their voices heard and share their experiences.”  

The project will continue through the end of 2022, so data is still preliminary, but Yosai says that in general, the first wave of data is showing that students may feel a lack of connection, but the vast majority of students are staying the course at UNC.   

“One of our main questions is, ‘How is this impacting your educational goals and your trajectory?’ We ask them if they plan on continuing with their education, if they were going to transfer to a different university, or if they were going to withdraw based on any of these COVID factors, and more than 90% of the respondents said that they were staying with UNC, and they were going to weather the storm. I found that really exciting and very encouraging that through everything going on, they were still finding ways to continue that academic journey at UNC.”  

From a mental-health perspective, Yosai says early data does show an elevation in some of the depression and anxiety symptoms that come from isolation and lack of connection during this time.   

“It’s really cemented the fact that connection is one of the most important things professors can foster right now,” she says.  

While the project still has almost two years of research ahead, Yosai points out that part of the process is identifying interventions and resources students need now and finding ways to help them access those resources.   

“School psychologists function theoretically within a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) that identifies support services for different magnitudes of problems for students,” she says. “About 80% of students will need general services like tutoring services, the library, office hours with professors. About 20% may need a different level of support based on what’s going on for them academically and mental health-wise, and about 5% to 10% of students will need more individual supports and services.”   

But students don’t always reach out to take advantage of resources. That’s where psychoeducation — which gives someone knowledge about a mental-health condition that’s impacting them — can empower students toward wellness.  

“In this young adulthood stage, we can’t make students do anything that they don’t want to do, but we can give them information, and we can empower them to take that information to self-advocate and explore the next steps. So, it’s not saying, ‘You have this, and you have to do this.’ Instead, it’s, ‘You have this. This is what you’re experiencing. Do you want to learn more about it? Here are some resources.’”  

While the UNC and Me project is gathering data to better understand what students are feeling and the types of resources they need during this time, it’s also giving students a voice, offering them new resources for learning about mental health and providing them with some tools to develop those important life skills. 

Helping Where it’s Needed

“We want to be able to support students, not just collect this information and say, ‘OK. We got the info. Now we can publish.’ Instead, it’s ‘How does this impact them? And how do we help,’” Yosai says.  

As WiMSSY Lab students talked about how to get information about wellness and mental health to the campus community, they developed five wellness workshops (virtual this year) that were open to students, faculty and staff as ways to learn about gratitude, positive psychology, coping with stress and mindfulness. Their long-term goal is integrating that information into a class or curriculum.   

Another resource available to students is through the Headspace Project, which made 500 copies of the Headspace app available free to students for a year. The Headspace app teaches the user about mindfulness — which has been shown to alleviate stress — and helps them incorporate it into daily life.  

“There are great wellness-based apps out there. With the Headspace Project, if students couldn’t pay for that or have access to that, we wanted to remove that barrier,” she says. 

Looking to the Future

Yosai is hopeful that college campuses will recognize the impact the past year’s events will have on student mental health, college enrollment and many other factors for the next five to 10 years. After a year or more of remote learning at the high-school and middle-school levels, students may come into college with deficits or academic challenges, but they also bring strengths with them — something Yosai hopes colleges will also focus on.     

“We don’t want to just focus on what they’re lacking, but what are the strengths that have come out of this pandemic? (These students) are so flexible and adaptable at this point. They’ve had to go through the wringer this last year, and they’ve survived. A lot of them have found ways to thrive, and connect with others, and do things that they never thought that they could do,” she says.  

She also says that even though the team is collecting data on some of the struggles UNC students have faced as a result of COVID-19, the pandemic brought attention to helping students build strength and resilience mentally and academically.  

“Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the foremost meditation research experts, has a quote that I love to say. It’s, ‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.’ We can’t stop the waves of the pandemic. We have no control over that, really,” Yosai says. “But, how are we learning to surf as a campus community, as graduate researchers, as undergraduate instructors, as students? We’re getting everybody back on their surfboards.”  UNC

–By Debbie Pitner Moors 

WiMSSY Research Lab