This Fall, over 3 million students started college in the US - some attending classes in-person for the first time in over a year. Do you know a loved one who went away to college this year? We know that teens have a lot on their minds anyway, and while some issues are not new, electronic media has amplified some of the struggles that young people face. On top of that, starting college means learning new systems, places, and faces, as well as potentially facing more academic competition than ever before. Not to mention, the stress of separating from family and living alone - potentially for the first time.
So just how does the transition to college impact the mental health of this population? It turns out …significantly. Read on for the research behind the headlines, as well as warning signs to watch out for.
What the research shows about college students and mental health
In the context of the stressors mentioned above, many college students experience the first onset of mental health and substance use problems or an exacerbation of existing symptoms. One study found that 60% of all college students suffer from at least one mental health problem. And according to recent surveys from the American College Health Association, 60% of respondents felt ‘overwhelming’ anxiety, while 40% experienced depression. A 2019 Penn State University study found that demand for campus mental health services spiked by over 30% in one year.
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have made things worse. Measures such as lockdowns, social distancing, and stay-at-home orders introduced negative impacts on the higher education ecosystem. A 2021 study found that 71% of college students indicated increased stress and anxiety due to COVID-19. This study found that contributing stressors included:
- fear and worry about their own health and the health of their loved ones (91%)
- difficulty in concentrating (89%)
- disruptions to sleeping patterns (86%)
- decreased social interactions due to physical distancing (86%)
- increased concerns about academic performance (82%)
Access to behavioral healthcare is key - but not always a given
Studies have shown a link between poor academic performance, and anxiety and depression among college students, so it's critical for students to have easy access to help. A study looking at mental health and academic success found that symptoms of depression or anxiety are a significant predictor of a lower GPA, and a higher probability of dropping out.
The problem is that many colleges and universities are not staffed with enough specialists to handle the volume of students that need help. As well, some students are uncomfortable admitting they need help, think that high stress is “a normal part of student life”, or do not know where to find help. One study found that among students with mental health issues, fewer than half received treatment when they needed it.
How to spot symptoms of depression or anxiety in college students
Recognizing signs of depression may seem difficult - but is critical. After all, everyone has “off days” when they feel overwhelmed with the stresses of college. However, when those days become weeks, and/or getting out of bed every day for class becomes a struggle, take notice.
Here are signs of anxiety or depression to look for in college students:
- not enjoying activities you once loved
- feeling hopeless
- no longer attending classes or social outings
- experiencing extreme anger or sadness
- reacting negatively or with apathy to most things
- talking about death or suicide
- suddenly turning to drugs or alcohol to suppress feelings
- family history of depression or anxiety
If you or a college student you love shows any of these signs, avoid telling them to "cheer up" or "snap out of it." Many people experiencing mental health issues are aware of their condition, and telling them to “get over it” is not helpful. Instead, encourage them to seek help. If there isn’t help available on campus, consider virtual therapy. Online platforms like Telemynd provide access to mental health specialists from the privacy of a dorm room or home.
If you recognize any of these signs of anxiety or depression, consider consulting a behavioral health professional
Request an appointment online or call our live support for assistance in scheduling care today. Our mental health professionals understand the link between the stresses of college life and mental health. If you’re a behavioral health provider looking to join Telemynd, see all the benefits and apply here.
Journal of Affective Disorders
Journal Medical Research