Pandemic taking toll on college student mental health

Saying that the upheaval and stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic has threatened college students’ mental health, the authors of a recent study are calling on institutions to bolster mental health services as they head into the fall semester. Conducted by The Healthy Minds Network (HMN) for Research on Adolescent and Young Adult Mental Health and the American College Health Association (ACHA), the survey reflects responses collected from 18,764 students across 14 campuses from late March through May 2020. 

Researchers asked participants a range of questions related to COVID-19, including their perceived susceptibility for contracting the virus, concerns about how long the pandemic will last, changes in their mental health and financial situation, and whether they’ve experienced racial discrimination as a result of the pandemic. 

Two-thirds of respondents reported an increase in stress due to financial strain—“a known predictor of student mental health”—while 36 percent of surveyed students reported having to uproot and move to a new living situation.  

Related: COVID-19 intensifying college students’ housing, food insecurity

Student responses highlight pandemic’s strain

The Healthy Minds findings also reinforce that “symptoms of mental health conditions remain high in college student populations, both before and after the start of the pandemic.” Between March and May of this year, 40.9 percent of surveyed students reported experiencing depression, compared with 35.7 percent in fall of 2019. The percentage of students saying their mental health adversely affected their academic performance was 30.5 percent in the spring, compared with 21.9 percent just months earlier.

The Wall Street Journal notes that the research reinforces concerns raised in an April survey by young adult mental health advocacy group Active Minds, in which about 80 percent of 2,086 college students said COVID-19 had “negatively impacted” their mental health. 

“Students are experiencing trauma, grief, losses as a result of COVID,” and of the murders of George Floyd and others, Barry A. Schreier, director of university counseling service at the University of Iowa, told The Wall Street Journal

Findings affirm need for improved resources

Sixty percent of students responding to the new Healthy Minds survey said the pandemic had made it more difficult to access mental health care, reinforcing the need to strengthen mental health and well-being resources for students. While noting that those findings reflect a brief window when colleges were getting up to speed with telehealth and contending with restrictive state licensure regulations—limits that have since been eased—Mary Hoban, ACHA’s chief research officer, told Inside Higher Ed that she hopes financially strapped colleges will resist cutting counseling services in the fall. 

Sarah Ketchen Lipson, co-principal investigator on the Healthy Minds study and assistant professor of health law, policy, and management at Boston University, emphasizes the crucial benefits of mental health support. “There is a strong economic case for investing in programs and services to support student mental health,” says Lipson. “Our prior research has shown that mental health problems such as depression are associated with a two-fold increase in the likelihood of dropping out of college.”

“The challenge before us,” Lipson said, “is what can we do to increase access, increase students’ understanding of the mental health service landscape, which looks very different than how it looked before.”  

To that end, Lipson calls on universities to ensure professors can recognize students’ trauma, even in exclusively virtual environments, and refer them to needed services. She also recommends strengthening partnerships between counseling centers and financial aid offices—given how financial concerns are weighing on students—and boosting telehealth options. 

Lipson also says the survey revealed critical opportunities to decrease inequities for students of color who face barriers in health and academic performance. “Put simply: We need to listen to the needs of and then invest in resources that support the well-being of Black students and other students of color on campus,” she said.

Topics in this story

Next Up

Gift to Georgetown Athletics highlights diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives

A recent gift from the Behrens family will establish a new position in the Georgetown University Department of Athletics focused on matters related to social justice, specifically the training and education of student-athletes, coaches, and staff members.