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College mental health problems skyrocketed during COVID: national study

Psychologists said COVID shutdowns and ‘uncertainty’ majorly contributed to crisis

College students’ mental health issues have been on the rise for the past eight years and took a nosedive during the height of the COVID pandemic, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

In just one year, 2020-21, nearly 60 percent of students surveyed met requirements for one or more mental health concerns, a 50 percent increase since 2013.

The study’s authors drew their findings from 350,000 college students surveyed at 373 schools across the United States. Survey data was collected by the Healthy Minds Network, “one of the nation’s premier research organizations contributing to adolescent and young adult mental health,” according to its website.

“In 2020–2021, >60% of students met criteria for one or more mental health problems, a nearly 50% increase from 2013. Mental health worsened among all [ethnic] groups over the study period,” according to the study’s abstract.

Additionally, depression overall in college students increased 135 percent and anxiety increased by 110 percent from 2013 to 2021, according to the study.

One of the authors on the study, Dr. Sara Abelson, a senior director at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, told The Fix that “more research is needed to understand exactly how COVID policies and shutdowns impact student mental health.”

However, Abelson said via email that “we do know that social isolation, which many students experienced, is harmful for mental health.” She also noted that grief from the death of loved ones, financial insecurity, job loss, as well as concerns about “food security, housing, and having safe homes to return to” were also factors.

“All of [these supports] are critical for mental health,” Abelson wrote in her email.

Additionally, “many students were disconnected from critical college support and resources as a result of the pandemic,” Abelson continued.

MORE: Sports psychologist warns of mental health problems from COVID shutdowns

A psychologist unaffiliated with the research shared a similar analysis with The College Fix.

“The isolation and disconnection of normal routines really impacted [mental health],” according to psychologist Hillary Cauthen of Texas Optimal Performance & Psychological Services, who spoke with The College Fix by phone August 26.

The uncertainty that surrounded the whole coronavirus situation was also detrimental toward mental health. “Uncertainty causes us to feel out of control”, Cauthen said.

The significance for college students is especially interesting due to how formative the four years of higher education are for young adults. Cauthen explained that having the “timeline [of the college years] disrupted” is something that people “struggle coming to terms with”, resulting in damaging psychological consequences.

This increase in mental health issues is also due in part to the normalization of mental illness and the way that “pressures and systems society-wise have changed,” with increased pressures for students beginning at earlier and earlier ages, according to Cauthen.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated the title and affiliation of Dr. Sara Abelson. Abelson is a Senior Director at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.

MORE: University COVID policies exacerbated college students’ mental health struggles

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Sylvie Patterson is a student at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, pursuing a degree in International Economics. She is a writer for Evie Magazine, and involved in The Tower, the conservative newspaper at Trinity. She is also an intern at a local newspaper in her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.