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College Mental Health Rates & Trends

Rates of anxiety & depression are on the rise in college student populations. Examine the contributing factors in this decline and explore potential mental wellness solutions.

The decline by the numbers #

College is supposed to be a stepping stone to a brighter future. But for students grappling with mental health issues, it can feel like a dead end. Data from the Healthy Minds Survey from 2007 - 2021 shows that rates of depression and anxiety in college trended upward over the past 10 years, with no sign of slowing.

Graph of percentage of college students experiencing depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation from 2007 to 2021

Percentage of college students experiencing depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation 2007-2021.
(Source: Health Minds)

The percentage of students who meet the criteria for anxiety (a GAD-7 score of 5), rose to 34.2% in 2021, while the percentage of students with depression (a PHQ-9 score of 10 or more) rose to 40.3% that same year.

Graph of percentage of college students flourishing from 2012 to 2021

Percentage of college students flourishing 2012-2021.
(Source: Health Minds)

Meanwhile, the percentage of students who are flourishing has plummeted. That is, students' sense of perceived success, self-esteem, and optimism has dropped significantly. Between 2012 and 2021, the percentage of students meeting the criteria for flourishing (a 48 on The Flourishing Scale) fell from 57% to 31%.

It’s not just COVID-19 #

The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on the mental health of many people, and college students especially were tossed into a world of isolation and uncertainty as they bounced back and forth between parents’ homes, dorm room isolation, Zoom class, endless discussion-board posts, and socially distanced campus events. However, the decline in the mental health of college students is not new to the pandemic, and it didn’t slow down as colleges moved back towards a state of normalcy. College students are undeniably experiencing a mental health crisis that is larger than ever before.

What is to blame? #

Is college harder than it was before? Are more people honest about their mental health these days? Is social media to blame? Does the world really seem more bleak?

There is likely a combination of factors at play here affecting students’ mental health.

Stigma #

Mental health stigma refers to the discrimination against or disgrace associated with poor mental health. In recent years, the stigma surrounding mental health has decreased dramatically as education about mental health increased and individuals spoke out about their personal experiences with mental health struggles. Stigmatization had a snowball effect of more and more people normalizing mental health and speaking about it.

Social Media #

College students today are deeply immersed in social media. For many of them, the isolation of the pandemic forced their social interactions and social observations to occur primarily over social media. While platforms such as Instagram and TikTok can facilitate connection, they also invite social comparison. With many students presenting their idealized life over social media platforms, observers may be left feeling jealous or inadequate when, in reality, they are right on track with their life.

Increased pressure & financial stress #

College today is more competitive, less accessible, and less affordable than it was in the past. Students who make it to college are often living with pressure from family who may be supporting them financially, or pressure from the debt accumulating as they work towards their degree. These pressures increase academic competition and stress about post-graduate plans.

Pessimistic world views #

It’s impossible to generalize about the world views about younger people today, but there is a general sense that the younger generation perceives their prospects in the world post-graduation to be more bleak. While there’s no single reason why, the increased exposure to negative news through social media and the 24-hour news cycle are contributors.

Additionally, issues like climate change and economic inequality are looming over the future’s of college students. While there has been plenty of positive development and advancement in the world in recent years, the negative aspects often receive more thought and attention.

What are colleges doing to help? #

College counseling centers find themselves on the front lines of this college mental health crisis, fighting with limited resources & availability. Many schools offer some counseling on campus, but with increased demand, it can be harder and harder for students to access the services they need.

In addition to expanding upon their counseling resources, colleges are seeking alternative ways to protect student mental health including introducing more flexibility with assignments, mental health days, crisis hotlines, peer counseling programs, group counseling sessions, wellness courses, wellness spaces, and more.

What are students saying? #

Despite efforts from schools and counseling centers, many students are not satisfied with the wellness resources provided to them.

Student newspapers across the US are running stories lamenting the lack of mental health help on campus. Some students argue that some of the schools’ actions are performative and that events that sound nice like wellness days are insufficient, and they can actually increase stress. On other campuses, students are fighting for administrators to recognize the problem and approach it holistically rather than with one-size-fits-all solutions.

Where to go from here #

For many college students today, their biggest struggles are happening alone in their dorm room rather than the lecture hall.

Gen Z is more outspoken about mental health and what they need to thrive than the generations before them. Listening to what Gen Z is saying and adapting solutions specific to their needs is the best way forward towards addressing their mental health and finding scalable and effective solutions.