Baldwin Wallace University

College students juggled issues related to their mental health prior to COVID-19. The pandemic amplified things.

Just one survey at Ohio State University, for example, found students there reported higher rates of burnout, anxiety and depression from August 2020 to April 2021. National findings echoed those.

Universities responded. The state of Ohio did, too, directing $13.5 million to both private and public colleges, specifically to boost support offerings in 2020.

Now, campuses across the state have chatbots and multicultural specialist psychologists and science-based sound therapy experiences and lots of other things to help aid students in navigating the third straight academic year impacted by the pandemic.

Ultimately, though, at a baseline, campus counseling centers are composed of humans helping other humans. And according to one new report, those working there — think clinicians, counselors, directors, jobs you can’t necessarily just log off and shake when the day is done — are far more burnt out now.

Nearly 93% of clinicians and 88% of directors surveyed reported experiencing burnout during the fall 2021 semester. More than half of clinicians reported their levels of burnout either haven’t changed or have gotten worse since fall 2020.

The findings come from a study of about 130 professionals across the country conducted by Mantra Health, a digital mental health clinic billing itself as a company “on a mission to improve young people’s mental health care.”

The report’s authors called it “crucial” for colleges and universities to be intentional when figuring out how to decrease provider burnout. It means recognizing that their needs are changing, especially as more campuses returned to in-person classes and activities last year.

Dr. Sara Lee, executive director of Case Western Reserve University’s University Health and Counseling Services, hasn’t explicitly asked staff if they’re burnt out.

But “everybody’s kind of tired,” she said. Officials are trying to be more mindful of how employees are scheduled. There’s the option to work remotely off of the University Circle campus once a week.

The staff at Case Western, as at other places, has dealt with oft-changing guidelines since the pandemic began. Plus, in addition to disorders some college students already face like anxiety and depression, the past few years have introduced more stressors for many: fear about the virus itself, loss of loved ones, financial hits.

“We know that the impact of the last two years, and really some ongoing impact, doesn’t just go away,” she said. “Students really need to recover and rebuild.”

Some employees have left the university to join private practices. Lee framed this as an opportunity to focus on filling those roles with intention and ways to improve. The university isn’t alone in terms of shrinking staff, per the Mantra Health report.

“Counseling centers are experiencing higher levels of turnover and smaller pools of new applicants, at the very time when those resources are most needed,” the authors wrote.

Clinicians’ workloads have increased. About 66% indicated they feel like they’re working more, a number higher than in 2020. The majority also said the heft of those workloads affect the quality of care they’re able to provide.

Officials at CWRU spell out explicitly on their website what students can expect. While there are no specific limits on the number of counseling appointments, the department sets clear expectations on deliverables.

“While we wish we could meet every need of every student, that just is not possible,” officials wrote. “Providing weekly therapy for all students (or even most of them) would require unlimited staff and space and would limit the number of students who could receive regular services from UH&CS.”

The pandemic illuminated the ratio of counselors to students on campuses, according to Timeka Rashid, vice president for student affairs at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea.

“We were already stretched,” said Rashid. “Now, we’re going to have to identify, with that stretch, how to prioritize, how to recognize, how to take care of our students.”

She knows her staff is working hard. They’re also playing catch-up in terms of prioritizing what they need to do and how to fit in everyone who wants or needs to be seen.

Students can opt-in to a telehealth company the university has contracted with. There are now two additional part-time counselors. By this time next year, Rashid said the goal is to have at least four full-time and one part-time counselor. Providers in the Mantra Health report said hiring more employees to share workloads was the top way they believe their burnout and isolation could be lessened.

In the meantime, though, Rashid is encouraging her counseling staff to take time off and lean on others in the field. The report also outlined similar suggestions for administrators to keep in mind for their staffs of providers, along with creating clear communication policies and procedures to lessen the chance for uncertainty.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.