The Mental Health Crisis Facing College Campuses in America

mental health in college
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To say that college is a time for students to find themselves would be an understatement. There is more to college than just coursework. A campus is a world of its own, where students have the ability to try various activities and do volunteer work.

They will be exploring the world outside the classroom. But they will also be investing in themselves, building knowledge, bonding with like-minded individuals – the list goes on. Whether a student moves out of home or not, they are often bombarded with unfamiliar responsibilities, including huge expenses and notable learning curves.

For the first time, many students will be learning to navigate their own mental and physical health without the help of their parents. This is a crucial time for development and an age where mental health problems can coincide with college years.

Recently, more and more college students are facing a decline in mental health. This has left a drastic impact, especially after the pandemic rolled in. This is a detailed review of the current depression and anxiety rates in students, including what people can do to turn the tide.

What Is the Biggest Health Issue Facing University Students?

Students have a lot on their plate, which makes depression and anxiety the biggest health risks for American college campuses. 2021 research indicates that almost half of the students had moderate to severe depression. More than a third felt moderate to severe anxiety, while 18% had suicidal ideation. (1)

Less than 50% had the means to cope with these mental health problems, but 71% believed their stress levels skyrocketed. This made the regular financial struggles, exam achievements, and lectures all the more challenging.

Roughly 75% of lifetime mental health complications can manifest by the age of 24. Study shows that depression and anxiety, alongside other mental health problems, are relatively common, especially those related to ethnicity and race. And they do take a toll on students.

Based on 2020–2021 reports, over 60% of students had 1 or multiple mental health challenges. And there is an almost 50% increase from 2013 in worsened mental health. Alaskan/Indian native students had the biggest increase in anxiety and depression. (2)

If left unmanaged, anxiety and depression in college students can add more fuel to the fire. In time, anxiety and depression could turn into debilitating problems for students. Their plummeting mental state can put a strain on their academic performance, physical, and social relationships. (3)

Symptoms of anxiety & depression

  • Change in sleeping or eating patterns.
  • Trouble handling or completing academic work.
  • Losing interest in activities. For instance, social events, interactions, sports, extra-curricular activities, and so on.
  • Emotional outbursts (i.e. anger or sudden crying).
  • Feeling constantly overwhelmed or over the edge.
  • Inability to self-assess.
  • Insufficient energy.

What Is the Most Important Factor Impacting Health in College Students?

It’s normal to have some sort of mild depression or stress when starting college. It takes time and effort to get used to a new environment – new people to meet and places to be. But, there is more to mental health in college students than meets the eye. There is a major difference between feeling uneasy and going overboard. Stress is without a doubt the most contributing factor.

Stress can come in countless forms. Other than the typical stress about getting good grades, leaving a good impression, and fitting in, stress can also come when a person can’t adjust to their new lifestyle. After leaving their comfort zone, or in this case, their home, they have trouble getting into a new social circle, one that’s completely different from the one they are used to.

Then there are financial repercussions. Most students can’t splurge their money like they used to. This leads to a change in lifestyle, budgeting, and new opportunities. It means getting a job, working to keep it, while in the meantime, studying and preparing for finals.

According to experts, midterms and finals are the number one source of stress for 31% of American students, followed by homework at 13% and workload at 23%. Others are worried about whether they have what it takes to get into a competitive job market. After all, it’s difficult to stand out in a crowded industry, particularly with thousands and thousands of graduates applying for the same position.

Physical and emotional harassment and bullying can also trigger stress, predominantly among students who tend to feel more pressure when they are the subject of rumors. (4)

Student Dropouts Rates Due to Poor Mental Health

Back in 2020, there was a huge emphasis on the rising number of college students reporting mental health problems. The Jed Foundation carried out an online survey of almost 200 graduate and college students to find the main reason for the plummeting mental health. (5)

The outbreak made it harder for students to be happy. Most dealt with anxiety in the last month, including loneliness due to self-isolation and depression. The quarantine and online courses made it harder to stay focused. As a matter of fact, the pandemic caused a drastic change in people’s day-to-day lives, leaving many feeling frustrated or angry.

Although the impact of the pandemic has subsided, depression still has a pivotal role in student drop-out rates. Based on a NAMI survey, most respondents who dropped out of college, no longer attend their studies due to mental health-related complications. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), bipolar disorder, and depression were some of the driving factors. (6)

A depressive episode, mainly for someone with severe depression, can make it impossible for a student to go to class. Many withdraw and can’t afford to go back, especially if they lost their scholarship in the process.

Skill Deficit, Social Pressure & Rising Costs

So, what makes college students struggle so much? There are two major factors – students lack the necessary life skills to thrive in a college environment, and the social pressure to become successful. For many, there is the pressure to be perfect in every shape or form.

Simply put, it’s tricky to overcome the notion of “America’s culture of hyperachievement”. Expectations are high. Paired with the rising cost of education, there is an even bigger pressure to succeed.

Based on a recent analysis, the average cost of college fees and tuition at a public 4-year institution has gone up by a staggering 179.2%. These skyrocketing rates have increased in the last two decades, with a typical annual rate of 9%.

Between 2018/9 and 2019/20, tuition fees went up by 1.5%. These increasing costs outpace the inflation rate by 171.5%. This is making it harder for students to be able to pay off their debts. So it’s no wonder why their well-being and mental health dwindles. (7)

It’s important to help students build confidence and strength to overcome various challenges, not to try and strangle them with a ton of responsibilities. A classic mistake many parents make is trying to overburden young students with numerous extra-curricular activities.

Most high- or middle schoolers have schedules that rival the best business executives. For these students, their days start at 6 a.m. sharp and end at 10 p.m. When finals are near, these students might have to stay up and study longer than that. This is an excruciating schedule that can leave a person sleep-deprived.

All the time they devote to studying leaves little room for developing basic independent living skills, such as how to cook their own meals, do the laundry, budget money, and do other things outside of school. So, in the end, many are left wondering “Who am I?”

Many of these skills will become a focal point later in their college life. And when they have to come face to face with these challenges, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, simply because they’ve left a highly structured environment. And now they have to live on their own with heavy coursework, many responsibilities, and the need to juggle finances.

Other Factors

Current college students are very different from previous generations, particularly in their beliefs and attitudes toward their mental health needs. Well-being is a huge concept of interlinked psychological, social, and physical dimensions. That’s why it’s important to take a look at the whole picture. (8)

Other things and risk factors can increase the odds of poor academic performance and dropping out of college. Some situations could trigger stress, anxiety, and depression. Depending on how much these factors affect the person’s life, they can have a detrimental impact on their mental state, such as:

  • Romantic breakups
  • Comparing themselves with more successful peers
  • Fear of disappointment
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Sexual assault or trauma
  • Family history of anxiety and depression
  • Trouble finding friends
  • Difficulties with sexual identity

Romantic love can be like a drug. It increases dopamine levels, which makes the body feel good. Losing someone you love, or breaking up with a person, can lead to physical and emotional problems, mainly tiredness and anxiety. If the break-up had a fundamental impact on a student’s emotional state, then they could withdraw from their usual activities or group of friends.

Comparing yourself to other peers is also unhealthy. When students constantly compare themselves to others, they waste precious amounts of energy. The kind of energy that would better go elsewhere. Comparison can lead to resentment, stress, and anxiousness.

Alcohol and drugs are easy to acquire in college. More than 60% of full-time college students consumed alcohol, a survey shows. And 39% stated they engaged in binge drinking (taking 5 or more drinks) in the last month. Plus the intense academic pressure could drastically increase alcohol consumption. (9)

It’s easy to escalate and turn to drugs, especially when students try to let off some steam. But what many don’t realize is that abusing substances could amplify the symptoms of a mental illness. Drugs and alcohol can also interact with some medications like mood stabilizers, anxiety meds, and antidepressants. This makes the medical treatment less effective at curbing the symptoms, which delays the student’s recovery. To top it all off, young people with a mental health diagnosis have a 5 times higher odds of attempting suicide than adults.

In fact, 4 out of 5 students in college who have thought about or tried suicide had some of the following warning signs. It’s important to recognize the problem and seek proper mental health support if you recognize any of these red flags.

Red Flags of Suicide

  • Skipping or ignoring classes.
  • Giving away prized possessions.
  • Withdrawing from everyone (friends, partners, or relatives).
  • Self-destructive tendencies (like doing drugs or driving under the influence).
  • Using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
  • Saying bye to loved ones in a way as if they don’t plan to see them again.

How to Manage the Mental Health Crisis?

When students do poorly in class because of mental health complications, some may seek support. Others, however, prefer to withdraw. But it is important to address the mental health needs and work on improving the mood of depressed and anxious students.

Evidence suggests that mindfulness could offer ample support for improving well-being and mental health on campuses. Since mental health encompasses multiple factors, such as having a sense of purpose, feeling valued, establishing connections, and so on, it’s vital to learn to be mindful. (10)

Mindfulness uses two components that work in sync. These are having an accepting and open attitude and awareness. Having this kind of attitude helps you accept whatever comes your way, instead of just trying to suppress it or make it seem bigger than it actually is.

When someone accepts their emotions, they are less likely to struggle with inner conflict. Therefore, they have more resources at their disposal to deal positively with that situation, event, or a person.

Awareness, on the other hand, prepares you for noticing negative perceptions as well as anxieties and demeaning self-talk when it arises. You can notice these emotions before you become consumed by them. When you spot them early, you can create a more flexible approach to handling them.

In other words, this is emotional regulation. To practice being mindful, slow down, and take a deep breath. Observe your thoughts, feelings, body, and emotions. Try to process your abilities, possibilities, and events in life before you decide to proceed. Guided meditation can help with that. Ideally, students should talk to mental health experts to find a way to cope with their unrest. This way, they can create practical long-term strategies that help.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Set realistic expectations and views of the child’s academic future.
  • Take the child’s personal desires and aspirations into account.
  • Let young children explore their wants and youth.
  • Help the child manage their fears to assist them to prepare for the future.
  • Leave room for the child to build basic independent living skills.

What Can Students Do?

  • Make your mental health a top priority.
  • Seek actual help to cope with the mental distress.
  • Build your internal motivation by finding the skills that can come in handy and the experiences you strive to have while in college.
  • Take care of your physical body to manage your mental health. Include healthier and nutritious meals, and stay hydrated, and physically active.
  • Build social connections that make you feel at ease and uplifted.
  • Find the time to volunteer or help those in need.
  • Try new stress coping skills. Like brisk walking, Tai Chi, journaling, etc.
  • Decide what you want to achieve professionally, academically, and personally. Then create realistic goals.
  • Steer clear of any “self-medicating” alternatives, like drugs or alcohol. They can make your mental health worse.

Conclusion

Campuses are like a roller coaster of emotions. One day you are on top of the world, and another, you are struggling down below. For many students, the pressure to succeed and topple the competition can be incredibly difficult and taxing. Of course everyone struggles with their own troubles in life. It’s important to acknowledge these difficulties for what they are and the impact they have. After all mental health complications can take their toll. If you need help, contact a specialist. They can set you on the right track.

If you are a college / university administrator or student, please contact us to learn more about StudentBody.care, the Telehealth service designed specifically for colleges and universities.

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8574925/

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032722002774

https://www.statista.com/statistics/1126279/percentage-of-college-students-with-depression-us/

https://research.com/education/student-stress-statistics

https://jedfoundation.org/news-views/survey-of-college-student-mental-health-in-2020/

https://www.nami.org/Support-Education/Publications-Reports/Survey-Reports/College-Students-Speak_A-Survey-Report-on-Mental-H

https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-college-by-year

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8267876/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6527004/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8199969/

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