America’s College Mental Health Crisis


Randy*, a 20-year-old basketball player from Nashville, struggled with depression for several years before leaving for college in 2019, but abruptly transitioned to remote classes at the start of the COVID pandemic in March 2020 and then returned to a very different college experience later that fall robbed me of any semblance of stability.

“The introduction of confusing hybrid classes and isolation from much of the student population really made my mental state worse,” Randy recalls. “I found myself unable to get out of bed, didn’t eat, and started to go into a really nasty pattern of self-destructive thoughts and behaviors.”

Randi began to consider what her life on campus would be like in the spring semester with COVID rules still in place, pressure on her pre-medical course accelerating, and most importantly, what she knew would be limited access to mental health. services at their school, which has experienced unprecedented demand during the pandemic for multiple therapists available on campus. She made the difficult decision to take sick leave and spent the next year at home focusing on her mental health.

Social Distancing

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, it’s no secret that social distancing, fear of illness, and the constant disruption of our daily routines have taken a serious toll on our collective mental health.CDC reported that levels of anxiety and depression have almost doubled in the 1 year since the pandemic began). But there is one group that has been hit especially hard by the pandemic: college students. As Sam*, a junior student who spent most of his college experience wearing a mask, had his nose swabs every two weeks and worried about getting sick, said: “Things I took for granted — an independent life, personal friendships and a moderately predictable future. – were taken from me in the twinkling of an eye.”

Overview of Yale researchers published last month confirmed that the percentage of college students who suffered from moderate to severe depression, anxiety, stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has skyrocketed during the pandemic.

This follows findings made last year by the University of Michigan. healthy mind research, which surveyed more than 32,000 college students nationwide and reported that 39% reported some degree of depression and 34% suffered from an anxiety disorder. According to the same report, nearly a quarter of students were taking medication for mental health problems, including antidepressants and sedatives. And even those who didn’t fit the clinical definition of depression weren’t doing very well – 60% agreed they needed help with emotional or mental health issues in the past year.

Life interrupted

Imagine jumping into a new life filled with parties, sports, exciting activities and new friends, and the hurdles and challenges of a major life transition, and then everything comes to an abrupt halt. Imagine that you have been working hard for years to get into college, and the experience looks completely different than you expected, just at the moment when you have to become more independent and chart the path for your future.


“I struggled with depression in my early high school years, but by the time I graduated, I had mostly overcome it,” says Sam, from a low-income family in the South, who spent the fall of 2019 adjusting to life. the culture of his elite Massachusetts College. However, when all students were suddenly sent home in March 2020, that cloud of depression descended again. “I felt like I had lost any sense of connection that I tried so hard to create. Going back to school the following fall certainly helped, but the depression remained, ebb and flow throughout the pandemic,” he says. “As someone who seeks to control their future, the pandemic has left me feeling completely helpless.”

Stories like this — a sense of hopelessness, growing anxiety, complete uncertainty about the future — have been heard on college campuses throughout the pandemic. “Our college students are facing a challenge that was unimaginable just a few years ago,” says Molly Ansari, Ph.D., assistant professor of counseling at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. “A combination of distance learning, limited social gatherings, mourning the loss of an expected college experience, and depression and anxiety could be a recipe for disaster.”

Pennsylvania Student Mental Health Center (CCMH) surveyed 43,000 students who sought counseling and asked them how COVID negatively impacted their lives: 72% cited mental health issues, 68% said it reduced motivation, 67% reported loneliness, and 60% mourned lost experiences or opportunities. .

Difficult age even in the best of times

That doesn’t mean the COVID-19 pandemic is solely responsible for the staggering rates of depression and anxiety among college students: Even before anyone ever heard of social distancing or Zoom, college years were a tough time for mental health. “Going to college can bring a lot of new stressors, such as living independently from family, forming new friends and relationships, and facing bigger academic challenges,” notes Daniel Eisenberg, Ph.D., professor of health management and policy at University of California at Los Angeles. is the author of the Healthy Minds Report, which reports that rates of symptoms of depression and anxiety among college students have risen significantly since 2011, doubled by 2019, and rose again during the pandemic.

“The biggest fears we have seen in students in connection with the pandemic are the loss of loved ones and financial hardship,” he adds. Besides,brain changes in adolescence make adolescence a peak time for the onset of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Looking for help but can’t find it

Adding to the pandemic mental health crisis is the inability of many colleges to keep up with the growing demand for counseling services. From small private colleges to large public schools, student newspapers report that students face many barriers to accessing mental health care. In a new report published by CCMH in January, it’s no surprise that counseling centers with the most students seeking help were able to provide fewer sessions for students in need — even those with critical issues such as suicidal ideation and survivors of sexual abuse. than colleges with less workloads. It is possible, the report says, that these students received help in the form of counseling outside their college.


Sam reveals that he started seeing a school therapist in the fall of 2020 when he returned to campus. “They were certainly helpful, but there was such demand for them from other students that the meetings were short and infrequent.” According to the CCMH report, the average number of counseling sessions for students at college centers last year was 5.22, indicating that they are attuned to short-term crisis support rather than long-term, ongoing care for students with more chronic problems. necessary. “Over the past 2 decades, college counseling services have experienced a well-documented surge in demand for services, while treatment options for the growing number of students seeking help have not increased in an equivalent manner,” the CCMH report says. “This trend has raised concern among almost all stakeholders and general allegations that institutions are experiencing a mental health ‘crisis’.”


Compounding the difficulty is that when a student lives in one state and goes to college in another, he often has to switch between two therapists (who may not be licensed in both states) and switch between providers to write prescriptions for antidepressants or other medications. .

Grace*, a student from South Dakota who attends a college in the Northeast, says: “Access to mental health services was very difficult during the pandemic, especially when we were off campus. I had weekly therapy meetings at my college when I was a freshman, but I couldn’t continue those meetings remotely when we were sent home, and since then I haven’t been able to get into a regular therapy regimen despite my best efforts. ”

According to Eisenberg, the pandemic eventually brought to light a problem that had been building up over the past decade. “I think the pandemic has exacerbated what has been a major public health problem for years: a large proportion of students and young people in general are experiencing severe emotional distress, and our support systems are struggling to keep up.”

hope for the future

The good news is that, like everyone who has learned to wear a mask to the gym or attend a birthday party via Zoom. The college psychiatric community is also learning to adapt. “After a difficult initial adjustment period, many centers have been able to offer teletherapy via videoconferencing or over the phone,” Eisenberg says. Many centers have also offered more options, such as self-guided digital programs, or contracted with external teletherapy providers to provide students with additional counselors.

Another positive development is that the stigma against seeking therapy or taking psychiatric drugs has been significantly reduced in today’s college cohort. “Over time, we have seen a decline in negative attitudes towards psychiatric treatment to the point where the vast majority of students now report very positive attitudes,” Eisenberg says. “This is a strength of the current generation of students – many of them are very knowledgeable and happy with the idea of ​​mental health treatment.”


This is clearly a crisis that began before the COVID-19 pandemic. And is likely to continue even when weekly nose swabs and college-colored face masks become a thing of the past. We hope that the lessons we have learned will lead to better opportunities for students in crisis in the future.

A year later, Randy finally felt well enough to return to campus. Although she still takes it day in and day out, she hopes things will get better. “What really helped was the medication, the therapy. The emotional support from my family and dogs. And the fact that I immersed myself in things. I used to love to do, like reading and baking,” she says. “I spent a lot of time at home developing good habits. So far, my workload, coupled with my focus on mindfulness, seems to be steady.”

*Names withheld to protect student privacy.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *