CAHE researchers ask students to rate their mental well-being during COVID

Gudrun Nyunt
Gudrun Nyunt

Living and learning on the NIU campus proved beneficial to the mental well-being of students during the Fall 2020 semester, a Department of Counseling and Higher Education study has found.

Titled “Flourishing in the Time of COVID-19: How Institutional Responses to COVID-19 Shape Students’ Well-Being,” the project reinforced the value of resources provided by universities as well as the need for higher education to fully staff, or even supplement, counseling services.

“COVID obviously had a huge impact,” says Clinical Assistant Professor Gudrun Nyunt, who has focused her recent scholarship on mental well-being, “and even though things are starting to get better, which I think is good to see, we’re not back at pre-pandemic levels. We know that our students need more care and support.”

Nyunt and her collaborators – CAHE doctoral student Jeanine McMillen and master’s students Vanessa Beckham and Kaley Oplt – received responses from 1,723 students to their initial survey sent in late August just as classes began.

Respondents, 75% of whom were undergraduates, were asked to rate their current and pre-COVID mental well-being on the Diener Flourishing Scale.

“We really wanted to know: ‘How are you doing right now, as the semester begins?’ ” Nyunt says. “We also asked them to think retrospectively – ‘What do you think your well-being was like pre-COVID?’ – because we wanted to have a little bit of a check-in. If someone has mental health issues, and their well-being wasn’t good pre-COVID, it probably wouldn’t be good during COVID as well.”

Her team was not surprised by the results, which were funded by a $1,000 NASPA Region IV-E Research and Assessment Grant.

Looking at the mean numbers, psychological well-being rated 48.46 of 56 before COVID and slipped to 43.63 as the fall semester opened, a statistically significant decrease.

“We found that there was a decrease in well-being – what people thought it was pre-COVID to the start of the semester,” she says, “but, interestingly, for most students there was an improvement in their well-being while they were at college for the fall semester. That was nice to hear that things were going upward again.”

A follow-up survey sent in October yielded 564 personal ratings of mental well-being that showed “slight improvement” to 44.78 but not returning to pre-COVID levels.

Digging deeper into the data provided the researchers with self-identified information on gender, ethnicity, race, course modality, housing arrangements and socioeconomic status as well as a clearer picture of factors possibly contributing to how students were coping.

It also created more questions, something the team is continuing to explore with qualitative research.

For example, women reported a greater drop in their well-being pre-COVID to August. However, by mid-fall, the well-being of women who responded to the second survey had improved more than men.

Of data available on race and ethnicity, only Asian/Asian American, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino/a/x and white students responded in numbers large enough for meaningful quantitative analysis.

But of those statistics, Nyunt says, “our Black and African American participants didn’t say that their well-being decreased as much as it did for our white participants, and by the end of the semester, their well-being was almost back to the level of pre-COVID.”

She hopes follow-up interviews will explain.

“I think there is a lot that we anecdotally know, or can just theoretically think about,” she says. “It might be the tool. It might be they have more resilience. It might be that they look at well-being differently, especially when you think about Black Lives Matter and all of what happened over the summer.”

Looking at socioeconomic status – again, as identified by the respondents – confirmed expectations. Students who represented themselves as lower-middle class, middle class or upper-middle class reported gains in well-being at a higher level than those in the lower-class.

“There are a lot of questions about the ‘why,’ ” Nyunt says. “It might be that the emergency funds were enough to help students who are lower-middle class but not enough to address the needs of students who are lower-class.”

NIU’s Student Emergency Fund was created in April 2020 to meet critical needs for students directly impacted by COVID-19 or whose circumstances have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

By the late fall, more than $2.2 million in federal CARES Act dollars, private donations made through the NIU Foundation, institutional funds and parking reimbursements from 672 NIU employees had been distributed to nearly 5,000 students.

As of last month, an additional $907,100 has been given to 3,663 students this spring.

Regarding classes, 62.3% of the students were taking courses online only, 33.2% had some in-person or hybrid courses, and 1.2% took all courses in person. Meanwhile, 41.7% were living at home with their families, 28.8% were living in NIU residence halls, while the nearly 30% living off-campus in DeKalb were almost evenly split between roommates and without roommates.

Students living with family or in the residence halls indicated a greater restoration of their well-being, and while respondents learning exclusively online reported a smaller dip than those with a mix of remote and face-to-face classes, those numbers essentially evened by the end of the semester.

As the pandemic continues to impact operations throughout society, she says, colleges and universities should strive to provide as little change as possible in course modality to give students a sense of security and stability.

“It tells us that whatever we do moving forward, we need to make sure we can stay consistent,” Nyunt says. “As much as some of them might not have liked the online environment, at least they knew, ‘This is what class looks like, and I’m learning to adjust and deal with that.’ ”

Nyunt’s team does hope to gain more insight on the housing questions.

“I don’t think it surprises anyone that our students who were living alone struggled the most, but our students who were living with roommates off-campus also struggled a lot and didn’t see an increase in their well-being during the semester,” she says.

“That makes us wonder,” she adds. “On campus, we’re providing many resources through Student Affairs staff and residential life to support them in dealing with those sorts of things, and the students living off-campus without roommates might not always have that.”

Early interviews already have provided one clue, Nyunt says.

“One of the things we saw in our initial analysis were issues around, ‘One roommate takes COVID seriously while the others don’t, so how do I navigate that dynamic?’ or ‘How do I communicate and make sure that I’m safe if the rest of my roommates want to go party and hang out with friends?’ ” she says. “That also makes us wonder if we, as an institution, can do more to support students living off-campus and are dealing with this in isolation.”

However, the researchers say that their results reflect well on NIU and its leadership.

“As an institution, there are a lot of good things we’re doing with residential life because, for students living on campus, that was really beneficial for them,” Nyunt says.

“Some other institutions chose to close down their housing departments, but NIU, I think, did the right thing by our students by giving them that option because it helped,” she adds. “Spring and fall didn’t feel normal to us, but it’s nice to see that living on campus provided enough normal for our students to kind of get them back on track.”

Residence hall directors and community advisers, she adds, also have the training and availability to help settle the kind of roommate disputes that caused issues off-campus “where there’s nobody you can really talk to to navigate those challenges.”

Nyunt and her collaborators already presented their work at NIU’s Virtual OneDay Conference 2021 and have submitted an article to the Journal of American College Health.

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