What impact the pandemic will have on students returning to campus for the spring semester remains to be seen, but mental health professionals at North Dakota campuses say students’ mental health may play a factor in their decisions.

Students are weighing their decision for the upcoming semester just as they did over the summer prior to the start of the fall semester. Students have to consider their financial situation, their family needs, their education and their mental health, Bill Burns, director of North Dakota State University's counseling center, said during a recent State Board of Higher Education meeting.

Burns said students are struggling with social isolation, anxiety and depression and other issues related to the pandemic.

Early data from the North Dakota Student Wellness and Perceptions Survey shows that 11.5% of respondents said they were feeling down, depressed or hopeless nearly every day in the past two weeks, that’s compared to 7.2% in 2018.

Additionally, 17.8% of students reported that they were feeling nervous, anxious or on edge during the same period; in 2018, that number was 13.1%

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More than 21% of students said they were feeling mentally exhausted, another increase from 2018 when the total was 13.5%.

Around 20.8% of students reported feeling they could not cope with all of the things they had to do over the previous few weeks, that number is actually down from 2018 when 38.7% of students responded in 2018. That decrease may be due to students having fewer extracurricular activities, system mental health professionals said.

Still, 28.1% of students reported not being able to control or stop their worry and 26.9% felt their difficulties were piling up so high that they could not overcome them in the past few weeks. There was no data to compare that to in 2018.

The survey went to all students across the university system in November and 12% of students responded. The full survey report will be available early next semester.

That all may have an impact on student retention, Burns said.

“The students who I’ve talked to who are considering not coming back next semester, who are considering taking a break, it's not because of the classes,” he said. “It's more that they're not connecting with people and they said if I can't be here and be with people, I might as well take a break, so it might have an effect on retention.”

Erin Klingenberg, director for counseling services at Valley City State, said she’s heard similar things from her students. Klingenberg said students have told her they appreciate they can take courses in different ways, but there are pros and cons to it all.

“I had a senior who told me this just doesn't feel like college; I don't have my friends. I walk down the hall and it just does not feel (the same). The environment, it's just not what I know VCSU to be,” she said during the meeting.

UND President Andrew Armacost said spring retention numbers look similar to what they did around this time last year for UND, but the university will ultimately know what enrollment looks like in the first couple weeks of January.

Armacost said the university will continue to offer support to its students, faculty and staff as they deal with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

“One challenge is to continue identifying additional ways for connection and how do we make sure that we're reaching out frequently to our students, whether it's in the classroom or outside of the classroom, and to make sure that their needs are being met,” he said. “This is always a topic of discussion … (we) spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the experience, in spite of COVID, to be a very good one.”