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Nearly Half of College Students Report Being Depressed or Anxious

A young Black man in class appearing distraught.

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Key Takeaways

  • In the fall of 2020, almost half of college students screened in a survey were experiencing depression and/or anxiety.
  • COVID-19, systemic racism and inequality, and political unrest are all added stressors on college students' day to day.
  • Professors can institute small changes, like being flexible with grades and deadlines, in an effort to ease the burden on students during this time.

A nationwide survey of over 32,000 college students has found that rates of depression and anxiety continue to rise among students, with rates hitting their highest levels amidst the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism and inequality, and political unrest.

The survey is just one representation of the growing acceptance and dialogue around mental health in the U.S. and could be a tool for educational institutions, faculty, and students to use when tailoring the conversation to their communities.

The survey was administered as part of the Healthy Minds Network, which has been gathering annual data on mental health among undergraduate and graduate students since 2007.

To participate, schools randomly selected a sample of students over the age of 18 and administered the survey online. 32,754 students, both undergraduate and graduate, were surveyed. The majority of students lived in off-campus, non-university housing, or in a parent or guardian's home. And 51% were receiving all of their classes online, while 41% were part of a hybrid (in-person/online) model.

The participants were given questionnaires used to clinically diagnose depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, among other mental health conditions. The researchers also measured participants' loneliness, academic impairment due to emotional and mental difficulties, and positive psychology.

In the fall of 2020, almost half of the students screened positive for depression and/or anxiety.

"What this time should be making us think about is what we consider to be a campus mental health system at all," Sarah Ketchen Lipson, PhD, EdM, co-principal investigator of the Healthy Minds Study and Associate Director of the Healthy Minds Network, tells Verywell. "That responsibility cannot fall solely to the counseling center."

What This Means For You

College students are facing particularly tough challenges during this time while having to adjust to online learning amidst a pandemic. If you're a student, reach out to your professors if you're feeling overwhelmed and ask about potential assignment extensions or modifications. Your university may also offer mental health resources and counseling available virtually or on campus.

College Students Burdened by Mental Health Issues

Among the key findings of the survey was the number of students who reported experiencing mental health conditions or receiving mental health help:

  • Major and/or minor depression (39%)
  • Anxiety disorder (34%)
  • Non-suicidal self-injury in the past year (23%)
  • Psychiatric medication use in the past year (24%)
  • Mental health therapy or counseling in the past year (29%)

The survey also found that 11% of students reported having an eating disorder and 13% reported experiencing suicidal ideation. The researchers also noted that 41% of students had been diagnosed with a mental health condition in their lifetime and that the majority of students reported feeling lonely, left out, and socially isolated at least some of the time.

Researchers found that these mental health issues impacted students' schooling. About 83% of students reported academic impairment due to mental and/or emotional difficulties in the past four weeks, with almost a third reporting impairment for six or more days.

There Is Still Perceived Stigma Around Getting Help

The students' knowledge of campus mental health resources—or where to go if you need help—was spread across the board. The majority of the students (70%) at least somewhat agreed that they knew how to access resources.

Most students (60%) perceived the need for addressing mental health difficulties in the past year, with 77% at least somewhat perceiving a need at the moment of their survey response.

Notably, the researchers found a discrepancy between personal stigma and perceived public stigma. Only 6% of students said that they would think less of someone who has received mental health treatment, while 45% said that most people would think less of someone who has received mental health treatment.

Lipson says that the discrepancy found between perceived versus personal stigma is an important statistic to recognize.

Over time, the stigma around mental health has decreased, which is a testament to the national dialogue. "It is a success story in mental health right now, that stigma is decreasing," Lipson says. "It's not zero and it's high in certain populations, but at a population level, it's going in the right direction and decreasing."

Lipson concludes that "the vast majority of your peers are really open to talking about this and are not going to think less of you."

Small Adjustments to Support Mental Health Today

Lipson, who is a faculty member herself at Boston University, says that faculty and students can consider the recent data and make small changes to support mental health.

"I think stepping back and encouraging faculty to think about how their syllabus might be more conducive to student wellbeing and to students thriving and doing well," Lipson says. "That's the first step, and looks different for different classes."

Although each class and community is different, small changes for faculty could include:

  • Making assignments due at 5 p.m. rather than at midnight
  • Including mental health resources on a syllabus (which demonstrates that they're making the connection between student success and mental health)
  • Having flexibility at this moment (amid COVID-19) and explaining that explicitly to students
  • Dropping students' lowest scores 

Lipson points out that simply recognizing the situation—for example, that a student is an essential worker, a parent, a caretaker, or someone who has lost a loved one to COVID-19—can be enough to make a difference.

"Naming those experiences really makes students feel seen and safe," Lipson says. "There's no way a faculty member could do or say anything that could reduce the grief or trauma, but to acknowledge that—it's a seemingly small but potentially impactful feeling for a student to think, 'this professor is thinking about our lives outside of this class.'"

There's no official script for that dialogue, but Lipson encourages every faculty member in the community to ask themselves, "What might I be able to tweak here that would increase the likelihood that a student could succeed in this class under these really challenging circumstances?" 

At the same time, Lipson says that students should also be giving professors the benefit of the doubt—opening up that dialogue on both ends can work to normalize "that we're not all at our best."

Larger Changes Needed for the Future

Outside of the classroom, there are ways that universities and the entire education system can adjust to better support students' mental health.

In Colleges and Universities

Many students use mental health resources for the first time in college, which coincides with the age of onset for many mental health conditions.

"About 75% of lifetime mental illnesses will onset by age 24," Lipson says. Knowing this, campuses should be constantly asking how they can invest in the licenses that expand services to all their students.

Lipson says that attention to students of color as well as low-income and international students should be prioritized considering that these groups show wider treatment gaps in dealing with mental health, as well as lower service utility.

"When we talk about outreach, what does that actually mean?" Lipson asks. "And how that happens is not just, 'Here we are and we're suddenly going to be here. But [it] is working closely with students leaders and faculty advisors to say, 'How can we bring our services to support your students?'"

Improving the Education System

When students go to university, they carry their entire history of mental health with them. Lipson says that society as a whole should change to support students in the long run.

"I'm someone who thinks from a prevention perspective because I'm in public health," Lipson says. "And I also am someone who primarily focuses on school settings as opportunities for shaping well-being."

Lipson also believes that making mental health and social-emotional learning (SEL) part of the standard curriculum that all students are exposed to—beginning in elementary school—is important for developing knowledge of mental health throughout a young person's trajectory in school. Some schools and universities are already installing SEL, but Lipson says that it's "more an exception than the rule."

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Article Sources
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  1. Eisenberg D, Ketchen Lipson S, Heinze J. The Healthy Minds Survey - Fall 2020 Data Report. The Healthy Minds Network; 2021.

  2. American Psychiatric Association. Warning signs of mental illness. Updated July 2018.