Pandemic Hurts College Students’ Mental Health

“Sixty percent of college students say the pandemic has made it harder to access mental health care, even as financial stresses and prevalence of depression increased among them, according to a new survey on the impact of COVID-19 on student well-being.

The survey by the Healthy Minds Network for Research on Adolescent and Young Adult Mental Health and the American College Health Association garnered results from 18,764 students on 14 campuses. Researchers say much of what they found is more confirmatory than surprising, but having the hard data will help colleges make decisions about providing mental health and well-being services to students.

Among the results:

Mary Hoban, chief research officer for the American College Health Association, stressed that the data were collected during a fairly narrow window between March and May when colleges that hadn’t used telehealth before the pandemic had to quickly put new telehealth systems in place. She said college counseling centers also struggled initially with state-level licensure regulations that prohibited providing mental health services across state lines; many of those regulations have been relaxed for the duration of the public health emergency.

Hoban expects the picture for mental health access and college counseling center capacity will improve in the fall.

“Not to say that all the challenges will have been addressed, but we’ll have better systems in place for the cross-state licensure regulations and for establishing a new client, a new patient,” she said. “Those were things that were bigger challenges in the beginning.”

At the same time, Hoban expressed concern about the potential for colleges to cut spending on mental health services as they struggle with broader financial challenges. About 20 percent of institutions responding to a separate ACHA survey reported having unexpected staff reductions this summer.

Sarah Ketchen Lipson, co-principal investigator of the national Healthy Minds Study and assistant professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University, said the results highlight a need to protect budgets for mental health support and to make sure that students are aware of the resources available to them, including telehealth resources.

“The challenge before us 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,” she said.

Lipson said faculty have a heightened role to play in caring for students’ well-being and referring them to mental health services as needed. With students having fewer interactions with peers, athletic coaches and student life staff, she said that faculty have a heightened gatekeeping role. She suggested that faculty should put information about mental health and wellness resources in their syllabi and take time to mention those resources in their first class and at stressful points of the semester, such as during midterms and finals.

Lipson also highlighted a need for partnerships between on-campus counseling centers and financial aid offices in light of the financial stressors many students are facing.

David M. Arnold, the assistant vice president for health, safety and well-being initiatives for NASPA, an association of student affairs administrators, echoed the idea that responsibility for student mental health “is not the responsibility solely of the counseling center and clinical staff.”

“This survey’s data can help inform what questions campuses can be asking locally to craft both service delivery and design to better accommodate students,” Arnold said via email. “The data also helps to complete a picture of student needs beyond mental health. When basic needs (physiological, safety, security) are threatened, that threat carries into our mental health. Students’ feelings of economic uncertainty may be the larger threat campuses may try to adjust by ensuring continued student employment, internships, and other career services. The survey also does well to identify that the issues regarding COVID-19 do not exist in isolation to the exposure and public response to systemic racial oppression, which is directly material for mental health and social identity.”

Read the full article by Elizabeth Redden, Inside Higher Ed. here.

If you are a current college student struggling with your mental health, check out our webinar Tips for College Success During COVID-19.

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