3 Takeaways from the ACHA COVID-19 Reopening Guidelines

On Thursday, May 7, the American College Health Association, ACHA, released a new set of reopening guidelines for institutions of higher education in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. As social distancing measures are relaxed and campuses prepare for the return of students, faculty, and staff, “these guidelines provide recommendations to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infection and a recurrent surge of infections.”

The ACHA COVID-19 reopening guidelines compliment another report from ACHA, Preparing for COVID-19. This report focuses particularly on “administrative, medical, mental health, health promotion/well-being, and campus-wide considerations in reopening college/university campuses as the COVID-19 pandemic abates.”

Public health control measures will be essential for allowing campuses to remain open without undoing progress and increasing the spread of the virus. This information is detailed in the report. But for students themselves, adequate support of mental health is key. Below are three themes from the report around student mental health.

1. Resources must be stretched further

Growing demand for student mental health services has always been a challenge for universities to keep up with. Now that demand is expected to increase further as students experience grief, disruption, and anxiety related to changes from the pandemic. According to the report:

Even prior to the pandemic, the demand for mental health services often outstripped campus resources. Innovative approaches to stretch those resources further will be needed as this pandemic continues to take its toll on the mental health of students, faculty, and staff.

Shifting resources to telemental health and wellness programming are activities that can be continued to provide students with the mental health support that they need, either off or on campus.

2. Skill-building can take place in a virtual environment

ACHA COVID-19 reopening guidelines state that incremental steps are necessary in order to lessen physical distancing. And programming must go on in the meantime. Even if entire campuses cannot be together in-person this summer and fall, certain activities are more suited for virtual settings and can continue with the right resources.

In particular, health education and trainings can be more easily transferred to a virtual environment. The report cites gatekeeper training as an example of an area where universities can provide skill-building programming:

This is a critical time to provide training and resources to faculty, staff, and students on how to identify those in distress and how to effectively intervene and refer appropriately. Counseling services staff can provide virtual trainings and workshops to provide the needed education, skills, confidence, and competence required.

That means training not just students, but also engaging faculty and staff in efforts to be able to confidently talk with students about their mental health.

3. Coordinate communications campuswide

Spreading messages loud and clear is important not just for accuracy of health information, but ultimately for amplification.

Health promotion has the unique capability of developing cogent relatable messages that speak to the spectrum of individuals on campus. Health promotion professionals should collaborate with SHS [student health services] and the broader campus leadership teams and campus specialists to plan and implement communications and marketing efforts. These may include media campaigns, public service announcements, email blasts, editorials, op-ed articles, flyers, posters, billboards, public transportation signage, and workshops; specific strategies should be based on the capabilities and interests of the campus.

Student mental health resources have likely shifted, and it’s critical that students not only know where to access them, but also that these services are normalized and destigmatized.

In addition, if students are not on campus or must remain physically distanced, it is important that they feel a sense of community and a culture of caring. Messaging from as many campus entities as possible reinforces communication better ensures that they receive messaging and emphasizes their place in the larger campus community.

Aligning Your Mental Health Efforts with ACHA COVID-19 Reopening Guidelines

If your campus is looking to implement virtual wellness and prevention programming, don’t miss our upcoming webinar on how colleges are preparing for remote orientation. Speakers from the University of Florida, University of Central Florida, and Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University will share how they plan to host student orientation remotely while infusing information and resources that will set students up for success. Register here.

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