In the fall of 2020 nearly half of the 33,000 students screened for mental health issues met the criteria for either depression or anxiety, the highest levels ever recorded among student populations.

Ideally, mental health education will eventually become part of the curriculum, giving students the tools to identify early signs of mental distress and more knowledge of healthy coping mechanisms to help them manage stress.

Over 80 percent of the students surveyed by Boston University researchers believed their academic performance had been negatively affected by their mental health, suggesting that college students’ emotional wellbeing should be given more national attention, even if students do not meet the clinical criteria for a mental illness or disorder.

College students are affected by a number of overlapping stressors, — the pandemic, social and political unrest, and the typical stresses of academia and young adulthood — all contribute to a uniquely stressful environment for students, the researchers note.

Racial and economic disparities play out here as well. Black and/or Hispanic students are many times more likely than their white counterparts to have lost a loved one due to COVID-19, to take on more student loan debt associated with higher levels of stress, and to be deeply affected by evidence of racial oppression and inequality and the protests responding to those events.

Two thirds of the college students surveyed for the Healthy Minds Study reported struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation within the previous 30 days of the survey. Researchers found this conclusion troubling in light of that fact that the social distancing measures currently required to help slow the spread of COVID on campuses also prevent students from engaging in typical behaviors that foster social closeness and help buffer the effects of lifestyle-related stress.

In many ways students are expected to proceed with their studies as though it’s business as usual, even though that is far from the case. Researchers identified simple strategies educators have begun to put in place for their students’ total wellbeing in such trying times. Some have been setting assignment deadlines for 5pm, as opposed to midnight or 9am, for example, to discourage students from pulling “all-nighters” to complete their work on time and divest from the exhausted-and-overworked college student trope in favor of a more holistic understanding of academic success that equally prioritizes rest and self care.

Most — 94 percent — of the students said they wouldn't judge a peer for seeking mental health services; but nearly half reported feeling that others might judge them negatively if they were to seek such treatment.

Study co-investigator, Sarah Lipson, also emphasized the importance of retaining a human element in education wherever possible, particularly because so much professional and academic life takes place virtually these days. She encourages instructors to accommodate flexible deadlines and promote a realistic understanding among students that one bad grade or flubbed assignment does not doom one to a lifetime of academic failure.

Instructors can also foster a supportive educational community by taking care to maintain one-on-one contact with students they suspect are struggling either academically or emotionally. Lipson also suggests that instructors use their platform to spread awareness about campus mental health resources, a move which can also help reduce stigma for students who might not otherwise seek help.

One reason for the rise in the number of students who screened positively for anxiety and depression may be because the stigma surrounding mental health issues has been reduced, the researchers said. This may have led more students to be forthcoming with their answers about their mental health, resulting in better data.

About 94 percent of students polled said they wouldn't judge a peer for seeking mental health services; but when the question was turned around, nearly half of students reported feeling that others might judge them negatively if they themselves were to seek such treatment. “We call that perceived versus personal stigma,” Lipson said. “Students need to realize, your peers are not judging you.”

Many students — and people in general — don’t seek help until they are already in crisis, potentially leading them to need more difficult-to-access resources. Lipson looks forward to a time in which mental health education is part of the regular college curriculum, giving young people the tools to identify early signs of mental distress and healthy coping mechanisms to help them manage stress throughout their lives.

A report on The Healthy Minds Study can be found here.