College students are facing increased stress and, in some cases, new barriers to mental health care, according to a new survey from a pair of collegiate-focused mental health organizations.
The study, conducted by the American College Health Association and the Healthy Minds Network and published on Thursday, surveyed about 18,700 students across 14 campuses between March and May 2020. Seventy percent of the respondents were undergraduates.
Two-thirds reported their financial situation has become more stressful during the pandemic. Of that group, 26 percent indicated their circumstances have become “a lot more stressful.” Overall, 29 percent reported no significant change and 5 percent said their financial situation has become less stressful.
Financial stress is one of the two most important predictors of college students’ mental health, said Sarah Lipson, an assistant public health professor at Boston University and one of the investigators behind the study. The other is a sense of belonging.
Financial stress can come with food and housing insecurity. Students struggling with those factors “are more likely to also be experiencing depression and anxiety, and also are less likely to be accessing mental health services,” Lipson said in an interview with WGBH News Monday.
Many students also found it harder to connect to mental health services amid the pandemic. Forty-two percent of respondents indicated they had attempted to seek care during the pandemic. Of those, 60 percent said accessing mental health care has become “much more difficult,” or “somewhat more difficult.”
Lipson said the group includes “students who had previously been using in-person services, as well as students who are newly experiencing symptoms and are trying to seek out mental health services,” while trying to navigate a new, mostly virtual landscape.
“I think this is one of the most important things for colleges and universities to have in mind as we move into the fall semester,” Lipson said, noting that the typical college age coincides with the onset age for lifetime mental illnesses. “There’s an important opportunity for early intervention and prevention by getting students connected to supportive resources during college.”
The increased barriers to mental health access also present a challenge for institutions that prioritize retention and maintaining a diverse student body, since low-income and first-generation students are less likely to have access to mental health services and less likely to seek them out.
“Students who are struggling with their mental health and are not receiving any services are about twice as likely to drop out, or stop out of college,” Lipson said.
When compared to the researchers' study from the previous year with a different group of students, the report figures also showed an increase in prevalence of depression. Forty-one percent indicated the presence of depression, up from 36 percent from Fall 2019.
Lipson said even though the two studies do not represent a perfect comparison, it serves to underscore the importance of continuing to collect data across different institutions.
Even though 60 percent of students with no prior COVID-19 symptoms considered themselves susceptible to an infection, a very small portion (less than 1 percent) of participants reported having a confirmed case.
About 65 percent of surveyed students said they were “very/extremely concerned” both about how long the pandemic will last, as well as the possibility of their loved ones contracting COVID-19.