At Northeastern University, administrators are encouraging students to take up to two excused absences this semester to “nurture their mental health” and “return to class with renewed purpose.”
As students readjust to campus life amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Northeastern is one of many colleges nationwide taking new approaches to student mental health. One manifestation? Wellness days. From Berkshire Community College to Grinnell College in Iowa to Ivy League universities like Columbia and Harvard, schools and workplaces are adopting the idea that people could use a few days to chill out for their mental health.
These wellness days might be a gift from these institutions, but not everyone is convinced that more time off is what college students need.
“My two wellness days are gonna be spent doing work that’s due as soon as we get back from the wellness day,” said second-year Northeastern student Ashley Wallace, 19, who’s studying architecture. “I miss class for the wellness day and now I have to gear up for going back to class two days later.”
University of Virginia sociology professor Josipa Roksa, co-author of the book “Academically Adrift,” agrees that time off is not the perfect answer. She thinks wellness days are an easy response to a complex problem.
“It’s unfortunately something that we often resort to in higher ed,” Roksa said. “It’s almost like saying: Let’s run 50 miles an hour 360 days a year and then let’s take one day when we can actually rest, and then let’s go back on the treadmill on a crazy schedule the day after.”
Yet the wellness day trend is on fire. Cases of student anxiety and depression — already high on college campuses — skyrocketed during the pandemic, and college presidents said mental health was consistently among their top concerns. The U.S. surgeon general also urged higher education leaders to increase support for mental health intiatives.
That’s because a lot is at stake. Students who report mental health issues are twice as likely as other students to drop out of school before earning their degree, according to a report released this spring from Gallup and Lumina Foundation.
In 2020, a national survey of 2,000 students found 80% of students said the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health in some way. That includes higher rates of self-reported depression, alcohol use disorder and bulimia, according to a 2021 study that surveyed thousands of first- and second-year students both before and during the pandemic. Female students reported higher rates of alcohol use disorder, while Black students reported higher rates of depression since the start of the pandemic.
“Since the pandemic, mental health has become a focal point issue,” said Markie Pasternak, senior manager for higher education with the national student network Active Minds.
Pasternak said wellness days are a gesture signaling that administrators value student mental health.
“That helps people to kind of relax a little bit, and be more open, and change the culture around mental health on their campus,” she said.
But some educators, like University of Virginia professor Roksa, said the days come with a cost. Literally.
Her research finds despite the soaring price of tuition and the fact that most Americans strive to go to college, undergrads often spend little time studying compared to other activities. Instead, they’re working, socializing or partying and, as a result, show limited gains in critical thinking — the hallmark of American higher education.
“[Critical thinking is] something you have to develop and build and develop and build and reinforce,” she said, noting that repetition is hampered by taking time off.
Roksa recommends colleges take other steps to address students’ mental health, such as adjusting their grading, getting more flexible with assignments and deadlines, or taking steps to improve the academic experience.
“Actually think about: How do we shift back what people are doing on a day-to-day basis?” she said.
Back at Northeastern, sophomore Daniel Myrick said he has the same workload despite his 48 hours of wellness this semester. And he doesn’t want to seem ungrateful, but …
“It seems like something that’s been done on the administration side,” he said. “It’s not something professors are actually integrating into their classrooms.”
Amulya Acharya, a grad student, said she’s planning to take her two wellness days to wind down. “You know, cool off for a bit. Go for a run, read a book maybe, grab some food,” she said. Will it help?
“Life here is so fast-paced and busy,” she said, rushing off to her business class.
Wallace, the architecture student, said the pandemic continues to weigh on her mental health and her ability to get back into full swing of things.
“The world is starting to turn back on,” she said.
And a lot of her classmates are still off — even if their absences aren’t excused.
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Kirk is the Managing Editor and Correspondent for higher education at GBH News. He takes the time to capture the distinct voices of students and faculty, administrators and thought leaders.
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