Open access peer-reviewed chapter

An Examination of the Social and Emotional Competence and the State of Mental Health of College Students, Specifically during the COVID 19 Pandemic

Written By

Molly Gerrish

Submitted: 05 May 2022 Reviewed: 13 May 2022 Published: 07 November 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.1000214

From the Edited Volume

New Insights Into Emotional Intelligence

Francisco Manuel Morales Rodríguez

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Abstract

As students progress through their educational career, often a focus on academic achievement, athletic involvement, employment, and social pressures outweighs the importance of successfully managing one’s emotions and mental health. A solid and healthy foundation for social and emotional expression and support has impacts on a student throughout the life span, including such life skills as social skills, relationship management, resilience, and adaptability. Examining how students are supported in the essential skills of social and emotional expression and how institutions of higher education are handling the increasing needs of mental health awareness and support for students in addition to their academic preparation are crucial for student health and success.

Keywords

  • basic need insecurity belongingness
  • emotional intelligence
  • mental health
  • resilience

1. Introduction

The topic of social and emotional competence and the state of mental health of college students has been a consistent and ongoing concern, even more so during the COVID 19 pandemic. Mental health and emotional competence are topics at the forefront of education. The ability for students of all ages to identify, understand, and express their emotions in and out of the classroom are incredibly important topics for success in school and in life. After the abrupt change in delivery at most institutions of higher education, due to COVID 19, it became even more apparent the fragility of college-aged students and their mental health. How students navigated the changes and upheaval of their education and living arrangements was influenced by several things, including which year they were in their respective programs of study, their level of support, and resources available to them, both human and financial. It became clear to faculty at various institutions that students who were already struggling with attendance and course content were becoming increasingly absent when courses transitioned to an online or hybrid format. Additionally, students who had part time or fulltime jobs in addition to their coursework, before the pandemic, also had demands from their places of employment and noticed that the hours they worked seemed to increase. Due to this, their attention to and focus on their role as a student became less of a priority. Some students also demonstrated further signs of stress and anxiety, basic need concerns, and a feeling of a lack of emotional support. Understanding the role of support systems and belongingness can help provide a framework to uphold the emotional and mental health of college students when faced with unexpected circumstances and stress-inducing situations.

These observations were supported in the research. According to Fruehwirth et al. [1], they noted an increase in the prevalence of moderate-severe anxiety in first year students within four months of the pandemic. Additionally, Ketchen-Lipson’s research revealed that a very large percentage of students said their academic performance was negatively impacted due to the pandemic. As the academic year for 2020/2021 started with a continuation of hybrid or on-line formats for classes, the patterns that had started at the beginning of the pandemic were becoming increasingly prevalent leaving faculty and administrators searching for ways to alleviate stressors and better understand how to support various student demographics dealing with mental health concerns due to the pandemic and overall, as a college student.

As students progress through their educational career, often a focus on academic achievement, athletic involvement, employment, and social pressures outweighs the importance of successfully managing one’s emotions and mental health. A solid and healthy foundation for social and emotional expression and support has impacts on a student throughout the life span, including such life skills as social skills, relationship management, resilience, and adaptability.

This research investigated how students in post-secondary education programs are supported in the essential skills of social and emotional expression and how institutions of higher education are handling the increasing needs of mental health awareness and support for students in addition to their academic preparation, specifically during the COVID 19 pandemic. This investigation then diverted into a closer look at the specific causes of mental health concerns and what institutions of higher education are doing to remedy this during the pandemic and beyond.

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2. Impacts of COVID-19 on college students’ mental health and overall experience

The topic of mental health concerns among college students is not new, however, after the pandemic, it is a growing focus for many articles and studies. The mental health of students in higher education has seen increased interest over the last couple of years with specific attention being paid to impacts from the swift change in educational delivery on campus logistics due to COVID-19. In spring of 2020, many institutions of higher education made an unprecedented change from face-to- face courses and on-campus living to online delivery, with little to no training or support for faculty or students. As the pandemic carried over into the full 2020/2021 academic year, the impacts become more obvious as much instruction shifted to online delivery or other modes- largely replacing face to face classes. The quick shift from a traditional, face-to-face classroom model of instruction to more online and hybrid options left both educators and students feeling the urgency and lack of preparation for such a major shift. According to Fruehwirth et al. [1], students’ anxiety and depression symptoms increased due to several key factors related to the change in the way their courses were delivered. The authors noted five main factors that impacted students’ mental health in a negative way, these included: greater difficulty finding support needed for courses (such as tutoring or professor availability), access to learning materials, adapting to distance learning, finding a quiet place to study or do coursework, and making time for studying or engaging in coursework. Other issues that played into student success and overall mental health included access to technology (including working and efficient Wi-Fi), being ill or being nervous about becoming ill, worrying about their loved ones, and taking on too much outside engagement (such as taking more hours at their part-time jobs). Many studies demonstrated that college students were facing mental health concerns even before the pandemic, with one study noting that 26% of college students reported feeling depressed and 43% reported feeling overwhelmed and struggling with anxiety. To support students in their academic pursuits in addition to their overall health and wellbeing, a deep look into causes and contributors to their stress and anxiety is necessary [2].

2.1 The pandemics impact on the college experience

The transition to college and university life often is associated with varied emotions, including excitement, anxiety, and stress. High school students are transitioning not only academically but, often, also transitioning from their home residence, a familial system, basic need provision, and a social structure they have become accustomed to. For some, this may also include a change in language and customs, cultural expectations, and perhaps even less oversight by an adult in their lives. In addition to this, changes in living arrangements, loss of an established support system, financial considerations, and increased academic expectations contribute to the feelings of stress students face [3]. Academics and coursework are the main building blocks for the “college experience”, however, attending a university also allows students opportunities to participate in a variety of new roles and venture into self-discovery and a sense of belonging. Students who live on campus in college dorms or other student housing are navigating new living arrangements, roommates, self-motivation and time management, financial constraints, increased freedom and new or varied social situations they may not have encountered in high school. There are many factors that contribute to why some students succeed and some face difficulties navigating this transition [4].

A well-developed emotional intelligence (EQ) can contribute to a student’s overall success. EQ is defined as “the abilities to accurately perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions” ([5], p. 197; [6]). Humans demonstrate a high level of variability in the strength of their Eq. A student with a well-developed EQ may be better equipped to navigate change, initiate new relationships, advocate for themselves and others, and function successfully in social situations. Studies have shown that students with a higher EQ score report more positive social relationships, larger social networks, fewer feelings of rejection, and overall, more fulfilling social systems of support [7]. When adjusting to life as a university student, stronger scores of EQ typically assist the student in making and keeping friendships, developing a sense of belonging on the campus and in various groups, and in turn, doing better academically [8, 9]. The foundational Need to Belong Theory (NBT) states that humans are highly motivated to create and nourish positive inter-personal relationships and that the success of these relationships is directly connected to a human’s feeling of happiness and security [10]. COVID 19 not only made impacted the academic processes, but it also impacted the social systems that college students rely on to feel support and belonging.

Mental health concerns, student self-care and self-advocacy are not new topics on university campuses, however, the pandemic has certainly shed more light on the growing concerns and stressors that many college students face [11]. According to Dennon (2021), the pandemic not only caused new stressors and anxiety-producing situations, but it also exacerbated existing ones such as hunger and housing issues. With many college sponsored residents’ halls closing or significantly limiting spaces available, many were left with unanswered questions about where they would live and tasked with finding alternative, and affordable housing, in a fairly short time frame. Students, however, are not the only ones feeling the impact of closures of residence halls and dining options, the need for refund checks and simply admitting less students into residence life also severely impacted college and university budgets. This trickle effect of budget constraints put additional pressure on faculty and staff, many of whom were facing their own challenges during the pandemic changes, thus the often “built-in” support systems that one typically finds on campus whilst living away from “home” also faced pressures and stress.

Housing and food insecurity contribute to the increasing pressures on students in a typical semester, and these issues have added increased risk to many students during the pandemic. For students fully dependent on their college campuses for social support, food and housing, the swift change in availability of resources added to their stress and anxiety [12]. Additionally, some students use their campus home as their safe space and were faced with returning to homes with potential violence or volatile circumstances or to a place where they did not feel as connected or part of, as they do on their college campus. Reports show that family violence has risen during the pandemic and that certain populations of students may have faced increased risks when forced to leave their campus home. For example, Lederer et al. noted that LGBT students who may be living “out” on their campuses, may not have a safe or supportive home life to return to. The pandemic and its’ impacts have far reaching implications for student safety and their sense of belonging.

Literature shows that the negative mental health impacts experienced varied by demographic group. The prevalence of moderate to severe anxiety increased significantly among NH (non-Hispanic,) White, female, and non-FGC (first generation college student) as well as SGM (sexual/gender minority) students. One study noted that this group experienced the most significant increase in anxiety and depression, increasing from 28.9% pre-pandemic to 46.1% mid-pandemic [1]. Sarah Ketchen-Lipson conducted a study surveying approximately 33,000 college aged students and found that students of color and low-income students also have a higher probability of dealing with the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19 and may also be facing added stress due to financial difficulties. However, the pandemic alone is not the cause, other issues including social media, finances, strained social relationships, and a shifting value system also play a role in the negative mental health impacts college students face.

“COVID-19 has caused an unprecedented number of job losses, and the drop in income has led to basic needs insecurity. Many schools have had to furlough workers or reduce student employees’ hours. Additionally, most students who work off-campus jobs in the service industry were either temporarily or permanently laid off during statewide COVID-19 shutdowns.” (Graham, 2020).

“COVID 19 has and continues to impede this (college) experience at multiple levels, causing students personal distress and dismantling their interpersonal, institutional, and community networks regardless of where they physically attend” [12].

With potentially threatened basic, social, and academic needs as well as the increasing mental health concerns for college students, mindful and focused options for support are crucial for institutions of higher education. Lederer, et al. contend that college students’ lives have been more than inconvenienced, their lives and education have been disrupted significantly enough to have even more long-term impact on health, mental health, and academic performance [12].

Another study showed that 90% of college students have experienced negative mental health symptoms due to the pandemic (Dennon, 2021). A survey implemented by BestColleges.com found that 95% of college students have experienced negative mental health outcomes due to COVID 19, with nearly half noting feelings of isolation and increased loneliness, disruption in sleep patterns, a decrease in health and fitness, and feelings of hopelessness. In addition to the academic concerns, social isolation is also a growing issue among college students. Things that can be positively influenced by their participation in campus-related events and activities [13].

2.2 Sense of belonging and the role of emotional intelligence in post-pandemic student success

When campuses made the shift to an online or distance format, this also impacted residential life and students’ ability to be actively engaged on campus and with peers. Dennon (21) found that first year students were at a higher risk for COVID-19 related mental health issues. And, 48% of female students as compared to 27% of male students reported they feel the effects will impact them long term. Another study conducted by Sarah Ketchen-Lipson revealed that half of the students she screened in 2020 (roughly 33,000), screened positive for depression and/or anxiety. The survey further revealed that 83% noted their mental health had negative impacts on their academic performance and that 2/3 felt lonely and isolated. These numbers reflect the impact the pandemic has had on the mental, social, and academic health of students [14].

With potentially threatened basic, social, and academic needs as well as the increasing mental health concerns for college students, mindful and focused options for support are crucial for institutions of higher education. Lederer, et al. contend that college students’ lives have been more than inconvenienced, their lives and education have been disrupted significantly enough to have even more long-term impact on health, mental health, and academic performance [12].

A sense of belonging and community are often associated with the groups, events, and even major of study that college students choose on their home campuses. Building a strong sense of self and a sense of belonging are often indicators of student success [15, 16]. Students who were already facing social challenges faced additional challenges both during and post-pandemic. Students, however, who did not previously indicate or demonstrate preexisting mental health concerns or social challenges are now showing they are more likely to show a decline in their mental health, mainly due to the social isolation caused by COVID 19 [17]. Belonging and social connection can help to combat some of the issues created by COVID 19 and the challenge seems to now be on college campuses to try to return to some sense of normalcy as COVID restrictions are lifted. The information learned from several mental health and social connection studies, specifically focused in COVID 19 impacts, can help guide college campuses into providing needed supports and resources for all students going forward.

Many studies suggest that EQ is declining among college-aged students. Contributing to this decline include the many changes in the world due to the pandemic, increased usage of social media, smartphone and other technology replacing many opportunities for human-to-human contact and social interaction, increased sense of social detachment and loss of motivation. Students’ ability to self-motivate was at the forefront of the pivot from face-to-face instruction to online delivery modes. Heightened academic pressure, feelings of loneliness and lack of belonging, and decreased family stability also play a role in how students’ EQ functions [18].

Because belonging and a sense of community is such an influential part of how healthy someone’s EQ functions, there are several recommendations for how to support college students. Because EQ is the neural pathway where cognition and emotion meet for personal happiness and professional success, it is obvious why it is so important for college students to have strong and healthy functioning emotional intelligence [19]. According to Goleman, emotional intelligence matters twice as much as IQ when determining success in life [20]. Additionally, to support college students and their mental health, there are several components of emotional intelligence to focus on. These include:

  • a more focused approach to assisting them with introspection and reflection to aid in their overall self-awareness. When classes moved to an on-line format, there was a loss of the ability to practice using and interpreting body language, non-verbal and other social cues. Due to this, there is a need to reteach these skills in meaningful and authentic ways. Non-verbal communication in discussion groups, online chat groups, and text messages reduced some students’ need to use and further develop this crucial EQ skill.

  • Self-regulation and time management skills. Without the traditional Socratic method in face-to-face courses, students were often left to manage a more independent approach to learning online. Self-regulation is crucial for success in school and in other aspects of life.

  • Motivation among students is also linked to success. Self-motivated students are often better able to handle multiple projects, a variety of timelines and expectations, and complete tasks in a timely manner. Without the appropriate motivation, college students lack the success needed to do well academically or socially.

  • Seeing other’s perspectives is another critical component of healthy EQ. College courses, student organizations, athletics, and community outreach opportunities are ways that campuses can support students in becoming more aware of others and situations outside themselves. Connecting with others dealing with similar circumstances can also contribute to a sense of belonging.

  • Positive social cues and relational skills are also crucial skills for success. Again, when the face-to-face opportunities to read social cues and interact in an interpersonal relationship ceased due to the isolation of quarantine, many of these skills lacked development. Being aware of this can help faculty to plan and engage students in activities and expectations that meet them where they are in the process of rebuilding social connections once back on campus.

Instead of returning to “business” as usual, or “back to normal”, the literature is overwhelmingly stating the importance of recognizing that students’ mental health as well as their emotional intelligence may have taken a serious hit during the pandemic. Skills that once were expected, may now need to be retaught and modeled for students. Skills that are known to contribute to success, may now be absent from students who are navigating a new normal.

This information is timely as it is focused on the pandemic we are currently facing; however, the mental health and social connection topics are things college campuses and professors need to be aware of regardless of the situation. Understanding the issues that students face is imperative to build strong and meaningful relationships with them and as such, to help students feel safe and supported on campus, in all ways, not just in social or extracurricular activities, but in academic arenas as well. As most, if not all, faculty were tasked with revising and retooling their courses very abruptly, to meet the demands of COVID 19 and safe distance learning, it forced some professionals to examine new ways of delivering content and new ways of connecting with students. The change in format also challenged both students and faculty to see areas that could be improved in their teaching and learning. Although distance education may not be everyone’s preferred mode, it can offer opportunities for connection and safe sharing spaces for everyone to be heard. Online discussions can open the door for students who may not prefer speaking in class in a face-to-face format, they can also encourage honesty and a deeper level of engagement. Knowing that students are facing increased physical, mental, and social issues, specifically due to COVID, campus administrators and faculty can use this knowledge in future planning and program implementation.

Recruiting and retention of students- this research can be used to understand the issues students face and the deeper implications of these issues. For example, if students are working part time or full-time jobs, as many students do, demonstrating empathy and understanding for their schedules is important. This may mean offering courses and activities in a variety of formats and at various times (which due to COVID 19, many campuses are already doing); making specific and mindful attempts to locate and include all students in activities and events; and, using mentors, focused advising, learning communities, and other human resources to help all students feel valued. Campuses can also do an inventory of the resources they are offering, how well these are utilized and make changes as needed to existing things that encourage better usage. Campuses already offer a wide variety of resources and supports for students (including basic needs), however, perhaps the way these are introduced and marketed to students could be modified in ways that removes stigma.

Suggestions for how to provide support and use the research to support students:

  • Administration and professors can make meaningful and mindful partnerships and invite group work where students are able to connect with peers both inside and outside the classroom. They can also use this knowledge to be more understanding of the need for both rigor and flexibility in course content, specifically around the deadlines and due dates, understanding that students are wearing multiple hats and maintaining outside employment, caring for loved ones, and potentially dealing with issues outside the classroom that could impede learning.

  • Incorporating meaningful professional development could and should be a focus for all faculty and staff. Just as many campuses offered online and technology trainings to support faculty in online courses, campuses could support more mental health training for all faculty and staff and provide support and resources for those who want to learn more. With a limited budget and reduced number of staff in some units, identifying in-house experts and peer mentors could be a cost-effective way to not only provide professional development but also create relationships across campus.

  • In advising, all play a very important role in making meaningful connections, recommendations, and being a supportive professional to students and colleagues. This research applies to all students, but also to peers and those who work on a campus in various roles. A deeper understanding of the variety of impacts of COVID 19 on a college campus can illuminate the need for increased empathy, flexibility, and connectivity.

  • Being more fully aware of the issues and situations students are facing- both inside and outside the classroom- can help to create meaningful and supportive relationships. With the information gained from this research, plans to modify coursework as well as build in more time for students to feel a safe space for communicating, not only during advising, but throughout the semester are key takeaways. Implementing an open-door policy with students regarding their ability to contact resources on campus is an additional layer of support. Other recommendations include helping students to not only be aware of campus resources, but also, how, and where to access them, normalizing self-advocacy and self-care, and building time into the semester to help students navigate the shift and pivot in course delivery options post pandemic.

  • Working with the community to identify and provide resources that perhaps a university cannot provide or work to build mutually beneficial relationships with community agencies and businesses is another step in building strong and sustainable mental health support systems for students. Building meaningful connections with students is vital. Office hours in a variety of formats, recommending events, resources, and groups to students; providing encouragement and time in courses for a sense of belonging and community, and building meaningful content into courses are ways to use this research and support all students.

  • Campus mentors can provide possible connections for students with people in similar situations and circumstances as well as accessing and maintaining lists of appropriate and affordable housing, food resources, and mental and physical health resources that can be shared with all faculty and staff. This information can then be shared with students in meaningful and safe ways; paying attention to those who may not have transportation, access, or the capacity to seek and use resources without support.

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3. Conclusion

Mental health and emotional intelligence are crucial factors in helping college students feel success and support. Due to COVID-19, many students felt a variety of impacts including a loss of basic need support, academic disruption, stress and anxiety, increased work demands, and an upsurge in fear and uncertainty. These left campuses searching for ways to support students in new and unprecedented ways. Some initiatives campuses implemented include mental health and counseling services, food shelves and basic need pantries, support and service animals, increased flexibility and empathy, hybrid learning models, increased attention to student connectedness and involvement opportunities, and faculty professional development. The more campuses can identify and understand what students are facing, due to COVID and beyond, the more concerted and meaningful the efforts can be to meet students where they are and provide the crucial sense of belonging they need to be successful not only in class, but in life.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to acknowledge UWRF and the Evidence-Based Teaching Fellows 2020 cohort. I would also like to acknowledge all the students, faculty, and staff who have worked diligently before, during, and after the pandemic to provide support, safety, and respect to the students they work with.

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Written By

Molly Gerrish

Submitted: 05 May 2022 Reviewed: 13 May 2022 Published: 07 November 2022