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Norwich University President Sought to Improve Student Mental Health During Pandemic

June 2021
Norwich University
Note: This article highlights the experiences of one United Educators (UE) member and doesn’t represent UE risk management or legal advice.

Many university leaders are examining the toll COVID-19 has had on students’ mental health and responding with empathy and compassion. This approach could help prevent suicides or suicidal ideation.

The President of Norwich University, a private senior military college and comprehensive university in Northfield, Vt., where about 60% of students are in ROTC, kept that in mind when he moved into the dorms during a prolonged isolation period caused by a COVID outbreak on campus.

Worried about a “depressed state of mental health” on his campus, the 50-year-old father of four moved into a dorm so he could show solidarity and personally assess the impact of his students’ isolation. Dr. Mark Anarumo spent five days in the single dorm room, only leaving to go to a bathroom he shared with about 20 students on his floor.

Mental Health Is a Major Concern in Higher Ed

Since the pandemic began, student mental health has become an even greater concern for higher ed institutions.

About half of college students screened positive for depression or anxiety, or both, during the fall 2020, according to a Healthy Minds study of nearly 33,000 students nationwide. And suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students.

Other surveys and research also show the extent of the mental health problem for students and the need for universities to help students.

How Did the Outbreak Start at Norwich?

This past fall, Norwich resumed in-person learning. With the help of student behavior contracts, physical distancing, a de-densified campus, temperature monitors throughout campus, a closed campus, and COVID testing, among many other measures, the university only had 16 cases that semester.

By plan, students went home for Thanksgiving and completed the semester remotely.

Spring semester resumed remotely Jan. 11, and the university brought students back to campus over a four-day period Jan. 15 to 18. The virus was rampant nationwide at that time, but the university was committed to providing an on-campus experience.

The plan was for students to arrive on campus, move into their dorm, immediately get COVID tests, then stay isolated in their dorm rooms (often with their roommates) for five days until all day-zero tests had returned results, with classes continuing online.

Test results took 24 to 36 hours to arrive. On the first day of test results, there were 32 positive cases — double the number of positives during the entire fall semester. Students who tested positive were moved to a separate “isolation floor.”

Positive cases continued to spread. On one day, 65 students tested positive.

So on Jan. 25, the university decided that if students in the dorms wanted to continue living on campus rather than returning home, they needed to stay in isolation for an indefinite period. The isolation period wound up continuing until Feb. 15.

President’s Experience in Isolation

Out of solidarity with the students, Anarumo decided to move into the dorms — Room 512 at Wilson Hall. He documented the experience using Facebook to post 5- to 7-minute videos on topics such as meals and dorm room temperatures.

The President had another motive: In his years in the military, he’d personally witnessed “the pandemic of suicides.”

He was worried about the effects of prolonged isolation on students, and he didn’t want suicides at Norwich.

He initially wanted to quietly move in and avoid special treatment, but his presence was quickly noticed. He provided his personal cellphone number in case people needed anything from him.

Students did. In fact, they called him at all hours, some more out of curiosity and others more to express their opinions and fears about isolation.

Students also hovered in the stairwell, seeking to talk to him when he left his room to go to the bathroom.

Some students detailed for him how important it was for them to stay on campus, how he needed to keep his faith in them and let them stay. Some wanted to stay because of personal bonds with classmates on campus. Some, however, explained they didn’t want to move home because then money for room and board would be wasted.

Anarumo believes his presence helped change the feeling that students were being punished and asked to isolate while faculty wasn’t.

But during his time in the dorms, he could feel the “degraded state” of student mental health.

Within 24 hours of his leaving the dorms, he decided to fully encourage students to talk to their families and make the best decision for themselves for their mental health. If they needed to leave campus to attend remotely, they would receive a prorated room and board refund.

The university also attempted to destigmatize students leaving the dorms, making it clear that students could move out without fear of repercussion.

From nearly 1,700 students on residence on campus in spring 2021, the university dipped to having under 1,000.

Anarumo has decided the university would never again resort to in-room isolation. It simply wasn’t sustainable for students’ mental health, so in a similar situation the university would use remote learning as opposed to isolating them.

Students crave a connection with each other — they need true peer interaction, and the impact on their mental health when they don’t have it is massive, Anarumo said.

One suicide from a student in isolation would be too much, he felt.

Norwich’s Strategies for Improving Mental Health

Based on Anarumo’s experience, he urges higher ed institutions to consider these strategies:

Increase Counseling and Wellness Center Staff

During the pandemic, Norwich increased full-time staff from six to eight. One of the new hires is a native Spanish speaker, which should bridge gaps for some students. Wellness center staff checked in with students proactively throughout the semester.

Leverage Technology

Norwich is using an app, WellTrack, for students to conduct a daily mood self-assessment. The app also provides tools to help students tackle common issues such as stress and anxiety.

Consider a Campus Vaccination Mandate for Students and Staff

Norwich has committed to being a vaccinated campus for the fall semester, minus those people seeking religious or medical exemptions. This will allow students to get back to the traditional campus experience, which Anarumo believes will have a “tremendous” impact on mental health.

Remember Faculty and Staff Mental Health

The pandemic has had a profound impact on faculty and staff, and that can’t be forgotten, Anarumo said.

This spring, Norwich held two town halls to hear directly from faculty and staff. Among other things during those events, employees received clarification on details of the complex operating environment and on the state of the pandemic on campus; they also received reassurance from Anarumo that the community was doing an exemplary job.

The university also has avoided layoffs and furloughs during the pandemic and has covered the increase in health care premiums, providing employees with peace of mind.

Norwich, located in a rural setting, was founded in 1819 and has about 2,600 students. It has been a UE member since July 2001.