When the pandemic shut down the country in March 2020, many college and university administrators predicted that civil rights complaints would plummet. With students learning from home and out of physical and social contact with one another, it seemed unlikely that there would be many claims of discrimination or sexual harassment under Title IX and other civil rights laws. But as it happens, the pandemic actually sparked novel civil rights issues related to the impact of vaccine requirements and an unprecedented rise in mental health concerns, which colleges and universities are still struggling to address.
What many people initially expected would be a two-week shutdown turned into a years-long ordeal. Online learning became the default approach through the spring of 2021. Prolonged isolation, difficulties adjusting to online operations and increased anxiety about interacting with others took a huge toll on students. At the same time, social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and #metoo occupied the national consciousness.
The student body was stuck at home, separated from in-person mental health resources and peer connections that higher education institutions typically offer. Psychological well-being among college students dropped during the spring of 2020, compared with the previous spring, according to a survey conducted by the Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association. Added stress and increased depression damaged academic performance, the survey found.
Mental health issues
Colleges and universities struggled to provide support, as demand for mental health care surged throughout the country. The lack of resources was devastating. In December 2021, the New York Times reported an “outbreak of suicides” among college students after the pandemic mandated remote learning.
University administrators also had to deal with new problems that arose with remote learning. For example, some students, who had found refuge on campus from abusive family situations, had to return to unsafe homes.
As much of life shifted online, internet conduct became subject to increased scrutiny from peers and administrators alike. Colleges reported receiving complaints about everything from a TA’s comments about Instagram content to a student accidentally exposing himself during an online class and threats received by students for racially insensitive posts. Fodder for civil rights complaints could be drawn from posts dating back years—and given the age and history on social media use of many college students—to something a student posted when they were in high school or younger. If everyone had been on campus, counseling or affinity group support might have resolved such problems.
Pressure for colleges and universities to provide more counseling also came from the federal government, which has long linked psychological support to civil rights compliance.
The Clery Act requires colleges and universities to offer mental health information to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and dating violence. The Obama administration mandated that such services be available to complainants in Title IX matters. The Trump administration emphasized that such support should also be available to those accused of sexual assault and harassment. State laws have gone further. For example, the 2021 Massachusetts Campus Sexual Violence Act requires colleges and universities to provide “confidential resource providers,” employees specially trained to help victims navigate the sexual misconduct grievance process. While this approach may have been well-intentioned, it left colleges and universities scrambling to find resources, often by adding responsibilities to already maxed-out counseling employees.
Back to in-person learning
The return to in-person learning last fall generated even more mental health concerns. Questions about vaccine mandates as well as the public health wisdom of returning to campus contributed to more stress and tension. Administrators reported students framing return-to-campus requirements as a civil rights issue, with some noting that the pandemic disproportionately affected racial minorities. A July 2021 study by the Black Education Research Collective at Columbia University’s Teachers College concluded that Covid-19 and systemic racism had a disproportionate impact on Black students, and that schools are not equipped to meet these students’ social, emotional and academic needs.
Others considered vaccine mandates a civil rights issue involving religious freedom. Two students contested vaccine mandates at the University of Massachusetts on religious grounds, but had their claims dismissed by the federal district court. That case will likely be appealed.
The U.S. Department of Education, meanwhile, emphasized the link between mental health and civil rights enforcement again last fall. An October 2021 fact sheet and letter from the department’s civil rights division noted a rise in suicidal ideation, saying students of color or who identify as LGBTQI+ may be at increased risk for self-harm. The letter suggested institutions train staff to recognize signs of distress, add more mental health evaluations and develop trauma-informed crisis management procedures. It argued that institutions legally had to provide students with services and modifications for mental health disabilities, including anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorder. The clear implication was that the federal government would take legal action against schools that failed to address mental health concerns.
So, what are institutions of higher education to do?
Given student needs and regulatory mandates, it is clear that more resources should be devoted to mental health. Finding such resources may be challenging. In addition to the financial burden, institutions may be unable to hire counselors in this tight job market. More than two-thirds of psychologists report a waiting list for treatment of anxiety and depression, the American Psychological Association reported in October 2021. Existing staff—already burned out from rushing from crisis to crisis during the pandemic—may not have the bandwidth to take on additional responsibilities. Yet being waitlisted for treatment can have significant consequences for students, especially when mental health affects academic performance, which is measured every semester.
It’s clear that administrators are looking for workable solutions. By spring 2021, 72% of college and university presidents surveyed by the American Council on Education listed student mental health as their most pressing concern. Second on the list: faculty and staff mental health.
Expanding telehealth, which flourished during the pandemic, is starting to help students at unconventional times or in remote places. Partnering with community-based agencies to provide psychological support seems viable too, as is publicizing national suicide hotlines for immediate assistance. As the return to campus progresses, outside partnerships may be key to alleviating the mental health crisis.
Brigid Harrington is an attorney at Bowditch & Dewey, LLP in Massachusetts. Her practice focuses on issues facing institutions of higher education. Email: email@example.com.