A nationwide survey by Boston University of nearly 33,000 college students revealed an increase in depression in college students.

Anxiety and depression continue to rise and have reached a peak due to several factors. The researcher cited that students felt immense stress because of the pandemic, political unrest, inequality, and systemic racism. Mental illness had already been an epidemic before the lockdowns, but this past year made existing conditions worse.

“Half of students in fall 2020 screened positive for depression and/or anxiety,” says Sarah Ketchen Lipson, a Boston University mental health researcher and co-lead for the nationwide survey published on February 11, 2021. The Healthy Minds Network administered the survey online during the fall 2020 semester.

The survey found depression in college students had risen to 83 percent, giving way to a decline in their academic performance. Furthermore, two-thirds of college students reported struggling with loneliness and isolation. During the pandemic, mental disorders in young people reached an all-time high. This reveals the overwhelming toll that the pandemic and social distancing measures have taken on this age group.

Lipson says the survey’s findings show that university staff should accommodate students’ mental health needs. She says this:

“Faculty need to be flexible with deadlines and remind students that their talent is not solely demonstrated by their ability to get a top grade during one challenging semester.”

She adds that teachers can ease the burden on students by making class assignments due at 5 PM. Many professors set assignment deadlines for midnight or early in the morning, encouraging students to stay up late. Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for mental health, so teachers should consider it when setting deadlines.

How instructors can help college students in a mental health crisis

Also, Lipson says that instructors who notice a student missing consecutive classes should reach out to them. This way, the student will know they have support and that someone cares about how they’re doing.

“Even in larger classes, where 1:1 outreach is more difficult, instructors can send class-wide emails reinforcing the idea that they care about their students not just as learners but as people, and circulating information about campus resources for mental health and wellness,” Lipson says.

She also says instructors should keep in mind that some student demographics carry a higher mental illness burden.

“Students of color and low-income students are more likely to be grieving the loss of a loved one due to COVID,” Lipson says. They are also “more likely to be facing financial stress.” All of these factors can severely impact a person’s mental health and academic performance.

Lipson added that instructors should inform college students about mental health services they can utilize. Providing students with information on how to access services that emphasize prevention, coping, and resilience could make a huge difference. The fall 2020 survey data revealed that much of the anxiety and depression in college students that get diagnosed with anxiety don’t receive adequate treatment.

“Often, depression in college students will only be addressed when they find themselves in a mental health crisis, requiring more urgent resources,” Lipson says. “But how can we create systems to foster wellness before they reach that point?”

She has a suggestion:

“All students should receive mental health education, ideally as part of the required curriculum.”

However, she says that the skyrocketing depression in college students doesn’t just affect college students. The survey findings reflect a far-reaching trend of declining mental health in young adults across the board.

Why so many people in today’s world have poor mental health

“I think mental health is getting worse [across the US population], and on top of that, we are now gathering more data on these trends than ever before,” Lipson says. “We know mental health stigma is going down, and that’s one of the biggest reasons we are able to collect better data. People are being more open, having more dialogue about it, and we’re able to identify better that people are struggling.”

Lipson says that overall, Americans may have worse mental health in today’s world due to several factors. She believes the pandemic, divisive social media, and shifting societal values play a huge role in the mental health crisis. In today’s world, she says that values have become more extrinsically motivated rather than intrinsically motivated. Basically, people care more about making money, being popular, and gaining success rather than being an upstanding member of their community.

Not to mention, the historically high student debt puts college students under enormous pressure.

Student debt is so stressful,” Lipson says. “You’re more predisposed to experiencing anxiety the more debt you have. And research indicates that suicidality is directly connected to financial well-being.”

Depression in College students increases the pressure.

Currently, over 22 million young people are enrolled in colleges and universities. Lipson says that students usually notice the onset of lifetime mental illnesses during the “traditional college years of life.” This shows why prevention and treatment measures taken in these crucial years could have a huge impact.

The good news from the survey was that the stigma surrounding mental illness has drastically decreased over the years. The survey revealed that 94% of students said they wouldn’t judge someone for needing help for a mental illness. Lipson says this indicates that those students would likely seek help themselves for a mental disorder. However, almost half of the students said they felt worried about what others would think if they did seek help.

“We’re harsher on ourselves and more critical of ourselves than we are with other people — we call that perceived versus personal stigma,” Lipson says. “Students need to realize; your peers are not judging you.”

college students

Final Thoughts: A large survey reveals worsening mental health among college students

Unfortunately, the pandemic and rising tensions in America have taken a toll on college students’ mental health. The results from the survey seem consistent with an overall decline in mental health across the board.

However, the Boston University survey revealed that students seem more comfortable seeking help for mental crises. Due to the fading stigma surrounding mental illness, people have become more transparent about their struggles. This means that perhaps students will seek help more often to get them through this challenging time.