Depression, Anxiety, Loneliness Are Peaking in College Students
Depression, Anxiety, Loneliness Are Peaking in College Students
Nationwide study, co-led by BU researcher Sarah Ketchen Lipson, reveals a majority of students say mental health has impacted their academic performance
A survey by a Boston University researcher of nearly 33,000 college students across the country reveals the prevalence of depression and anxiety in young people continues to increase, now reaching its highest levels, a sign of the mounting stress factors due to the coronavirus pandemic, political unrest, and systemic racism and inequality.
“Half of students in fall 2020 screened positive for depression and/or anxiety,” says Sarah Ketchen Lipson, a Boston University mental health researcher and a co–principal investigator of the nationwide survey, which was administered online during the fall 2020 semester through the Healthy Minds Network. The survey further reveals that 83 percent of students said their mental health had negatively impacted their academic performance within the past month, and that two-thirds of college students are struggling with loneliness and feeling isolated—an all-time high prevalence that reflects the toll of the pandemic and the social distancing necessary to control it.
Lipson, a BU School of Public Health assistant professor of health law, policy, and management, says the survey’s findings underscore the need for university teaching staff and faculty to put mechanisms in place that can accommodate students’ mental health needs.
“Faculty need to be flexible with deadlines and remind students that their talent is not solely demonstrated by their ability to get a top grade during one challenging semester,” Lipson says.
She adds that instructors can protect students’ mental health by having class assignments due at 5 pm, rather than midnight or 9 am, times that Lipson says can encourage students to go to bed later and lose valuable sleep to meet those deadlines.
Especially in smaller classroom settings, where a student’s absence may be more noticeable than in larger lectures, instructors who notice someone missing classes should reach out to that student directly to ask how they are doing.
“Even in larger classes, where 1:1 outreach is more difficult, instructors can send classwide emails reinforcing the idea that they care about their students not just as learners but as people, and circulating information about campus resources for mental health and wellness,” Lipson says.
And, crucially, she says, instructors must bear in mind that the burden of mental health is not the same across all student demographics. “Students of color and low-income students are more likely to be grieving the loss of a loved one due to COVID,” Lipson says. They are also “more likely to be facing financial stress.” All of these factors can negatively impact mental health and academic performance in “profound ways,” she says.
At a higher level within colleges and universities, Lipson says, administrators should focus on providing students with mental health services that emphasize prevention, coping, and resilience. The fall 2020 survey data revealed a significant “treatment gap,” meaning that many students who screen positive for depression or anxiety are not receiving mental health services.
“Often students will only seek help when they find themselves in a mental health crisis, requiring more urgent resources,” Lipson says. “But how can we create systems to foster wellness before they reach that point?” She has a suggestion: “All students should receive mental health education, ideally as part of the required curriculum.”
It’s also important to note, she says, that rising mental health challenges are not unique to the college setting—instead, the survey findings are consistent with a broader trend of declining mental health in adolescents and young adults. “I think mental health is getting worse [across the US population], and on top of that we are now gathering more data on these trends than ever before,” Lipson says. “We know mental health stigma is going down, and that’s one of the biggest reasons we are able to collect better data. People are being more open, having more dialogue about it, and we’re able to better identify that people are struggling.”
The worsening mental health of Americans, more broadly, Lipson says, could be due to a confluence of factors: the pandemic, the impact of social media, and shifting societal values that are becoming more extrinsically motivated (a successful career, making more money, getting more followers and likes), rather than intrinsically motivated (being a good member of the community).
The crushing weight of historic financial pressures is an added burden. “Student debt is so stressful,” Lipson says. “You’re more predisposed to experiencing anxiety the more debt you have. And research indicates that suicidality is directly connected to financial well-being.”
With more than 22 million young people enrolled in US colleges and universities, “and with the traditional college years of life coinciding with the age of onset for lifetime mental illnesses,” Lipson stresses that higher education is a crucial setting where prevention and treatment can make a difference.
One potential bright spot from the survey was that the stigma around mental health continues to fade. The results reveal that 94 percent of students say that they wouldn’t judge someone for seeking out help for mental health, which Lipson says is an indicator that also correlates with those students being likely to seek out help themselves during a personal crisis (although, paradoxically, almost half of students say they perceive that others may think more poorly of them if they did seek help).
“We’re harsher on ourselves and more critical of ourselves than we are with other people—we call that perceived versus personal stigma,” Lipson says. “Students need to realize, your peers are not judging you.”
first of all, excellent writing! This report is extremely triggering for a few reasons. Obviously students are NOT okay at the moment, now confirmed by the student. But what does the university do about it? They micro-manage EVERY aspect of students’ life to mitigate Covid risk. Here, tell me why the university took away household table seating in the dining hall? That was one of the ONLY places on campus where students can eat with each other and actually see their friends’ faces. What type of modeling was used to make this decision and its impact on covid spread on campus. Same thing for the green badge, was there a statistical difference in case before and after students have to walk around showing that? The university’s policies are simply incentivizing off-campus, more dangerous gatherings because the university won’t facilitate anything like that on campus. Oh, and the university response? ‘you’re doing great sweetie’ type of deal – absolutely ridiculous. I know BU can’t keep this up much longer, they are losing far too much money because of Covid and less students on campus – there will be a reckoning. Students, stand up.
BU will acknowledge this but then still won’t do anything to actually help.
Great, but this school is doing absolutely nothing to help it
I appreciate this article because I feel that the issue of mental health isn’t talked about enough amongst students and just college culture in general. I don’t see any concerns coming from college faculty, at least clearly. It’s so important to talk about mental health, especially during a pandemic.
This article is definitely going in the right direction. That being said, as the other comments have also mentioned, BU needs to do MUCH more than just publishing an article telling students, “well, at least you aren’t alone.” If 83% of your student body reports their mental health affects their school work, then if not for them, at least change something for the benefit of the school’s name. To put it bluntly, this does not look good. Also referencing BU’s response to sexual harassment, BU now has a track record of acknowledging issues that significantly impact its students in an article or maybe a speech to only do NOTHING about it. Please, I implore the school to act. Act or we will.
We know mental health stigma is going down
Actually, we know support for those taught and teaching that prejudice is diminishing, though that does not mean by any stretch of the imagination it is not still being taught. It continues to be taught (often resolutely) at Boston University. The above sentence is one manner in which it continues to be taught, Passive Reference. It is also actively taught.
“Perceived stigma” is another interesting Passive Reference, directed prejudices are intended by their directors to be perceived. “perceived” stigma is an obfuscation of the process whereby it is perceived.
It surprises me, that so many women, eschewing “the stigma” of rape, continue to declare “the stigma” of mental illnesses. Sometimes history does not inform us.
A few years ago 5 students died by suicide at a Canadian college, blamed was “the stigma” of mental illnesses, not those conveying it. When a young man at U Penn died by suicide it prompted his sister to set up a now national organization protesting “the stigma” of mental illnesses, not those conveying it. National organizations abound conveying “the stigma” of mental illnesses to eagerly awaiting audiences. Publications abound, but to my knowledge not one single publication directly addresses how it is taught or who teaches it.
Nor, to my knowledge is there a campus in the US, or any English speaking country, where someone is given guidance on how to address those directing it. Whom to approach. How to resolve it. Access@BU.edu offers no such guidance.
I invite each of you to return to 1972, when a small group of personally empowered women said, “Stop directing the term stigma at rape, you have done enough harm” and take that lesson to heart: We stopped.
And I invite Access@BU.edu to take a role in bringing about that change.
Harold A Maio, retired mental health editor
Wow – so what is BU doing about this when we have pleaded with admin and offered so many ideas and solutions to helping here since September 2020?
The silence is deafening BU.
The Well Being Project is stagnate.
The Dean is silent.
The provost says students are happy based on some survey they did just before holidays when students knew they were going home.
The Director of Mental Health says appts for mental health are down – that’s the sign everything is fine?
We are hearing the opposite and many students have just lost their faith in support from BU as well as just returning home for LFA where they have a support system.
Where are the social in person safe activities outside and inside?
Where are the RAs and their weekly activities and support of their residents or are they just there to write students up?
Where are the self-care tips and resources offered daily to students?
Where in the daily MANDATORY self-check survey of their health – are any questions about their emotional well being including their mood, stress levels, sleep and appetite?
Where is the support for faculty who are seeing these issues and trying to reach out?
Where are the therapy dogs from pre-pandemic we asked for weekly or biweekly to come outside and offer unconditional emotional support during this tough time?
Where are some campus wide concerts or comedy relief concert paid for by BU – virtually or outside so students have anything to look forward to? If it’s down to money / the $70,000 Tuition or should cover some of it or funds from housing since many were not reimbursed when they returned home for support.
Where is any work with this amazing wise resource Dr. Lipson to take any of her guidance since last summer instead of just posting it here?
Is anyone listening to the isolation and pain of so many terriers? I have heard troubling stories for months since we began our BU Parent group that is NOT monitored by the Deans office unlike others. I have helped refer and counsel families worried if they speak up there might be some retaliation. There is no retaliation just a deaf ear to making any changes to improve morale and well being of our terriers during a pandemic. And then posting this article is the ultimate hutzpah when no one has listened to Dr.Lipson / your own shining star about these issues.
Why not shine as you have with COVID testing? What if this were your family member feeling isolated and disillusioned with their dreams at BU with no outreach from BU except an occasional ZOOM message.
BU can do so much better and be the example for the rest of the nation. Why test so stringently if you will not allow any safe activities except for favorites like sports teams and band members?
Terriers are ZOOMED OUT. Don’t wait for a suicide or more depression to appear in students. It’s almost too late to be proactive / but you can try and we ask that you try hard. Be an example for other colleges.
We are not giving up on being heard. We are parents who care and love BU and know it can do better.
A lot of good points made – I wanted to touch upon when you mentioned that appointments for mental health are apparently down. As a student actively seeking mental health resources, my experience is that it has been extremely difficult to even schedule any sort of mental health appointments or counseling; we are unable to make an appointment online or in-person anymore, and the only information we are given is a phone number to call (the Behavioral Medicine number). I find this frustrating as many of us need more than just a phone conversation to help – even a zoom meeting would be helpful, but why aren’t there zoom appointments for SHS like there are for almost every other service on campus (e.g., pre-professional advising, financial aid, etc.)?
I’ve noticed that the loneliness and isolation is affecting not only me but my roommates as well, who have stronger support systems and more friends on campus than I do – we’ve all been lacking motivation to do any of our work and they’ve mentioned that they feel like they need a break (spring break canceled due to pandemic concerns). Even some of my professors seem burnt out – forgetting class, getting behind on their syllabus, etc.
In my opinion, BU should be more proactive in giving students resources instead of making it difficult to find said resources. Lastly, I wanted to add that I understand a lot of services are probably very different now due to the pandemic, but a single “wellness week” and emails about it do not do much to actually help students – I find it comparable to “self care” where the self care is just drinking wine and putting on a skincare mask and pushing all your real problems aside.
I agree with those who are asking for BU to do more to support students. I’m a faculty member who is trying to do my best to support my students. I’m more than willing to give extensions, modify assignments, and lower my expectations this semester. I’m checking in on students who miss class to make sure they’re okay. I’m trying to cut as much material as I can while still meeting my course learning objectives. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to expect faculty to do everything when it comes to students’ wellbeing. I’ve been in meetings where faculty were asked (both implicitly and explicitly) to help students make friends and socialize during class. I know faculty who are doing this in their courses (and I applaud them for their efforts), but shouldn’t Res Life and other staff at BU be providing opportunities for students to safely socialize? Sure, it’s cold, but certainly BU can be creative and think of ways to encourage students to get out of their dorms and make friends. Faculty are struggling too, and BU’s administration can help us by helping our students.
This is an excellent article, and though not surprising, it is shocking that the BU administration has not done anything to remedy this mental health crises.
This is a mental health pandemic happening and it should be as high of a priority for BU as the trying to control the virus. If BU doesn’t step up and come up with a plan to address this then our students will suffer for years to come. This should have happened months ago. You can’t have a healthy individual/society if you are only concerned with physical health. It has to be a holistic approach.
I hope all instructors read this article I am one of the students sometimes fell a depression and live in the anxiety that is effectives on my life and do not have the energy to do anything particularly during what we live now
First, I would like to focus on the positive and thank BU mental health staff for being there for my son when he was in urgent need of mental health support back in the Fall semester. My call was answered right away and my son was able to speak with a professional with in 15 minutes. I was very impressed and relieved. They were there when we needed them.
On the other hand, I’m hearing from my son and all of his friends that the academic culture of rigor for the sake of rigor, grade deflation and the purposeful weeding out of students from core classes rather than supporting and helping each student succeed, not only continues but has been increased during COVID. These students have a sense that professors are concerned about online cheating so have ramped the rigor to address this. Not sure if this is real or perceived and I’m sure this is not going on in all classes as I also heard examples of supportive professors, but this is definitely a theme I am hearing from students. This style of academics is known to be outdated and ineffective, yet it continues, even at a higher level, during a pandemic.
I’m hoping this feedback can serve helpful to administration.
THANK YOU!!!! As a college student, who has survived the past year with a 4.0, attending full-time to obtain my degree in IT. I am struggling for the first time. After technology issues that set me behind four days, I really thought my instructors would understand. One of my instructors couldn’t care less. The workload is beyond overwhelming, her curriculum seems almost cruel. I graduate next month and I feel like I am losing my mind. I already suffer from severe anxiety, so the level I’m at now is almost debilitating. I have been obtaining degrees since 1998, and familiar with online learning. I’ve never had issues. This morning I received an email from her reminding me of the due date, in all bold caps, followed by some !!!! … She made it clear she is not available on the weekend, but expects us to be flexible. So my dilemma is this, I am failing my coding class now, but I don’t feel that I should be financially responsible to pay for having to retake it, as well as have it impact my financial aid and scholarships I receive for my academic performance.
Hi. I’m a BU alumna, a college professor, and mom to 4 college-aged sons. WONDERING… Do students feel there is explicit and implicit prejudice against college students as “purveyors of COVID?” I think this adds to the discomfort or enjoyment of being a college student and part of a university community. Thoughts? Thanks!
I notice that the students like to complain on here. One thing that university researchers on mental health have a difficult time assessing is knowing the familial support system (or lack thereof) students come into university life with. Psychologists will affirm that this plays a huge role in the mental health of students, at any age. Just as elementary through high schools today are expected to be the emotional, parental, physical, educational, and social supporter of each student, so too are universities being given this sort of expectation. Don’t get me wrong…I believe in striving for mental health and making resources available on campuses. However, within the communities of students – whether their friends or family – we have to realize that the internal conversation around mental health for many cultures is either non-existent or looked down upon. We can sing mental health from the rooftops all day long and hope that students are listening…..and I hope they do.
ECT/Electroshock use has been on the rise last 5 years or so and not just used for depression nor as a last resort. No FDA testing ever done of devices used or the procedure itself. Increase risk for suicide following as many cannot find help for their repeated brain injuries after consenting to this. Lawsuits taking place in the US and England around these damages covered up. See site ectjustice to learn more. Please speak out on social media so others are made aware of the truth of this practice.
People shouldn’t hesitate to ask for psychological help. I think it’s one of the main problems why people struggle mentally. Maybe, it’s a matter of self-critique, and society says sometimes that we should be strong… But when someone gets in an emotional crisis, only a professional can help. And I also never see when students/educators judge their peers/colleagues if someone contacted mental health support. I looked through the list of different affordable mental health services across English-speaking countries – https://ivypanda.com/blog/mental-health-resources – I was shocked how many problems we can have, and how many professionals exist to help with them. Maybe, it may be helpful to others too. Let’s take care of ourselves.
I tried to find the source for “83 %” of college students say their performance was negatively affected by mental health. Did you just pull that number out of thin air? I tried to go through everything I could and could not find this number anywhere in any actual published writing.
Please see page six of the report, the pie chart listed under Academic Impairment.
I think you just made up certain elements of this article and they actually have 0 foundation whatsoever. It has led me down a rabbit hole of attempting to try to find the published support for some of the claims you make. Including the 83 % figure. If you’re going to write articles that will be heavily referenced (which this is, because other idiots went on to quote this article), you should at least get the facts straight.
Please see page 6 of the report, the pie chart listed under Academic Impairment: https://healthymindsnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/HMS-Fall-2020-National-Data-Report.pdf
That is a misrepresentation of the data, in my opinion. Including students who reported mental health impacting their academic performance 1-2 days out of the week is insufficient to be grouped in with 83% of students. The way it is presented in this article makes it seem much more drastic than that. It should say, “28% of students felt 1-2 days out of the week had been negatively impacted by their mental health in the past month..” and report the other percentages. Not combined into one group and twisted in a sensationalistic way. I was attempting to use this information for a research paper of my own and was sent down a rabbit hole trying to find a source. Other people have cited this article, and that is your responsibility as a researcher.
Reading it because to help a friend with his assignment. He studies in FAST, Islamabad, Pakistan. If anyone of his class fellows are here, good luck to you
It is 3:12 in the morning and I just got off the phone with
son. He called because he was riddled with
anxiety and suffering with loneliness and a
seeming inability to form meaningful connections.
This is his first year at BU. He loves the University;
However, in addition to the rigorous academic
challenges, he is crushed by the seeming inability
to form connections with others.
This, on so many levels, surprises me. He is
intelligent, interesting, friendly, handsome and
Upon my introduction to the University’s logistical
layout, I was immediately aware that it not
appear easily conducive to meeting people…
As opposed to a smaller private college if you will.
Clearly, BU had an obligation to address the many
challenges brought about as a result of Covid.
Understandable, but perhaps a bit extreme, ie:
The students not being allowed to eat or congregate.
Regardless, what I also observed is that there
are few, if any, common rooms.. areas for students
to hang out, play board games, ping pong, darts,
tell jokes, b.s. and share common concerns. Or
My point being, there should be multiple places
(Besides sneaking into local clubs, or drinking
Alone in your dorm) where kids can go..day or
night. Organized events as well, aside from sports.
As aforementioned, my son also found it
very challenging and frustrating to contact a
counselor through your service. When you do,
the schedules are booked……
I have been heartbroken. Nonetheless, the
consistent voice if encouragement.
I want more from the school. I, like all others noted
before me. More social emotional support. More
access to social opportunities. More professors
understanding and working with the challenges
our children are struggling to navigate.
In closing, it’s not just a BU crisis. I listen to
very similar difficulties from many other University
PLEASE be more proactive. PLEASE care
It is imperative and essential to a successful
college experience and outcome.
Thank you. And thank you all aforementioned
very very nice