Mental Health Among College Students During the Age of COVID-19

Written by: Kirstin Schafer, Psy.D., Angela Derrick, Ph.D. & Susan McClanahan, Ph.D.

Mental Health Among College Students During the Age of COVID-19

Mental Health Among College Students During the Age of COVID-19

Mental health challenges have been on the rise for the past decade, and college students are among the most vulnerable groups. College introduces many new stressors into a young adult’s life, so it may not be surprising that anxiety is the most common mental health problem for students. In 2019, over 50% of college students reported struggling with anxiety.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting stressors, such as fear, social constraints, loneliness, uncertainty, and health concerns, have exacerbated these challenges. Forty-four percent of college students have reported an increased level of depressive thoughts, and 8% have experienced suicidal thoughts associated with the pandemic. In fact, 18- to 24-year-olds have reported the highest levels anxiety and depression symptoms throughout the pandemic, and these symptoms are more prevalent in vulnerable populations, including among Hispanic and Black individuals. Many college students, especially those with pre-existing mental illnesses, have described feeling moody, overwhelmed, and isolated.  

Of course, it is impossible to control the pandemic or its impact on our lives on a large scale. However, our reaction to major events and their resulting impacts on our mental health is within our control. Research indicates that only a small minority of college students seek help for mental health issues and actually may be more likely to exhibit maladaptive coping behaviors such as denial or disengagement instead of getting the care they need.

There are several measures college students can take to protect their mental health and proactively address any issues they might be facing.  Here are a few initial recommendations for the college-aged population:

  1. Establish a self-care routine. Eat well, hydrate, get plenty of sleep, and try to incorporate mindful physical activity into your daily life. Minimize alcohol use or other factors that may interfere with feeling your best.  Get out of the house daily for fresh air and interaction with others.
  2. Create a plan. Be aware that mental health issues might arise throughout the semester, especially if you have struggled with mental health in the past. Have a plan in place for how to identify and address any issues that might occur. The plan should include regular check-ins with someone you trust, such as a friend, family member, or therapist, throughout the semester.
  3. Share your struggles and seek help. Talk about how you are feeling!  Know that you are not alone with your mental health struggles. You can always turn to a college counselor, or an independent professional. Some students prefer to turn to family members or other students.
  4. Take a break. If you feel that remaining on campus or continuing with your studies will be unproductive or unsafe for your well-being, it might be best for you to take some time off from school and focus on recovery. Most colleges and universities have an established process for leaves of absence due to mental health challenges, and many resources to help students through the process. These days, taking virtual classes instead of in-person classes might even be an option, so you have more choices about what kind of living environment best supports your mental health while you are in school.

In the best of circumstances, college can be a difficult transition. Although new friends, experiences, and independence are exciting, they can also be stressful and challenging. The added stressor of the COVID-19 pandemic only increases the psychological strain of taking classes and being on-campus.  However, with attentiveness, preparation, and care, mental health issues can be addressed and treated so that college can remain a fun and productive experience.