Recent studies tracking the mental health of high school and college students fully underscore concerns regarding the emotional toll the pandemic has taken on these cohorts. However, while the unprecedented challenges students have had to face due to the global health crisis – including a pivot to online classes, severely disrupted academic terms and concerns about personal health and safety – medical experts who have been following student wellbeing note that the pandemic has only exacerbated an already deteriorating situation.
“We’ve been tracking persistent sadness, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts and behaviors for a number of years,” says Dr. Kathleen Ethier, head of the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “In the ten years prior to the pandemic, mental health and suicide risk have been going in the wrong direction.”
According to a recent CDC study, in 2021, more than a third of surveyed high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44 percent said they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year. The research, based on a survey of 7,700 high school students across the country, follows a previous CDC study that recorded a 40 percent rise in persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness amongst high school students from 2009 to 2019.
The isolation and a lack ofness caused by the pandemic made what was largely an unstable situation even more fragile, with students unable to access the human contact and in-person services they might normally tap for support, Ethier notes.
“What we have is the existing contributors to poor mental health, and then the existing support to improve mental health, gone,” says Ethier. “So, one of the really significant findings was the degree to which school connectedness contributes to wellbeing, the understanding that the people at your school care about you, that you feel close to them, they are there for you in that way.”
Similarly, a new study led by Dr. Sarah Lipson at Boston University found that the mental health of college students across the US has been on a steady decline from 2013 to 2021, with an overall 135 percent increase in depression symptoms and a 110 percent rise in anxiety symptoms during that period. The research, based on survey data collected from 350,000 students at over 350 campuses, saw a significant rise in anxiety and depression during the pandemic’s peak, but Lipson says this is more a continuation of a trend rather than a unique spike in prevalence.
The factors contributing to the stresses students currently endure are wide ranging, from the role race and ethnicity play in terms of mental health trends, to emotional and physical abuse at home, to the basic issue of hunger, experts say.
“The crisis related to mental health exists well beyond the college and university setting,” says Lipson.
However, the potential to intervene and reach students at a uniquely important time of life is considerable. “It might not be perfect, but many four-year colleges offer some of the best mental health resources people will ever have” because these institutions can use their resources to remove barriers to care, such as a lack of available providers, long wait times and financial restraints, Lipson adds.
Indeed, as completion rates and graduate outcomes are directly tied to the overall wellbeing of students, providing appropriate and relevant services is increasingly becoming a priority on university campuses. For example, Marquette University is currently building an $80 million “wellness and recreation” center designed to bring mental health services, sexual violence prevention and addiction clinics together with traditional medical and recreational facilities under one roof.
“This will be a transformative project for our campus, particularly our students,” said Marquette President Michael Lovell, adding that the university is exploring partnerships with healthcare system and community organizations to maximize the number of services the facility offers.
“I want to take any stigma away from the mental health piece,” said Lovell. “We’re really focused on our students’ success, to make sure they never have to go into a health or wellness crisis.”