More college students than ever were anxious, depressed, and struggling with suicidal thoughts last school year. That’s the sobering finding of the Healthy Minds Study (HMS), an annual online survey of nearly 96,000 college students at 133 American universities, released last Friday. But the study revealed a potential silver lining: more college students than ever are seeking help.
HMS found that 44% of students reported depression, 37% an anxiety disorder and 15% said they had seriously considered suicide, an increase of two to three percentage points over data from winter and spring 2021. The rates were the highest in the survey’s 15-year history.
The increase equates to thousands of students, said Dr. Justin Heinze, associate professor of the combined education and psychology program at the University of Michigan and HMS principal investigator.
While a pandemic may seem like an obvious explanation for the rise in mental illness, Heinze cautioned against attributing the increase to COVID-19 alone.
“We’ve been seeing this trend since at least 2015 and maybe a little earlier,” he said. “It seems like it’s just a sequel.
According to Dr. Societal factors such as gun violence, climate change and racial injustice can all play a role, says John Dunkle, senior director of education and knowledge at The JED Foundation (JED), a nonprofit focused on the mental health of young adults. suicide prevention Heinze believed that some of the increase could be attributed to better measurement of mental health and a reduction in the stigmatization of mental health issues. He also pointed out that the problems don’t seem to start in college — other surveys have found similar increases in mental health problems among teens.
Although students are clearly struggling, they are also reaching out for help faster than ever before. 37% of students reported receiving at least one counseling or therapy session in the previous year, an increase of seven percentage points from Winter/Spring 2021. This was the largest improvement since 2018.
The increase in therapy and counseling may simply be because more students have mental health issues. However, the study also provides evidence of ongoing changes in student access to professional help. Only 6% of students said they would think less of someone who received mental health treatment, and 40% thought most people would think less of someone who received mental health treatment, down five percentage points from the winter/ spring 2021. .
“I think we’ve moved the needle on stigma,” Dunkle said. “On some campuses, students are more comfortable [with mental health] than so-called adults.”
Colleges also seem to have succeeded in making sure their students know what services are available. 51% of HMS respondents agreed or strongly agreed that if they needed to seek professional help for their mental health, they would know how to get resources from their schools.
Although the 37% of students receiving counseling or therapy was encouraging to Dunkle, he noted that it still falls short of the 52% of students who said they needed help with mental health issues in the past year. He advocated that schools scrutinize the survey results to learn about students who are not receiving professional help.
“I would encourage institutions to dig deeper into the data and start stratifying it based on demographics so they can really get a deeper understanding of who the 52% are,” he said. “Then they can be more intentional and strategic about connecting those students to services.”
HMS found disparities by race: students of color were less likely to access mental health treatment. According to Heinz, this may be due to different levels of mental health stigma in different cultures. He speculated that people of color may be more likely to access other forms of support through their social or religious networks. Dunkel pointed out that there are relatively few doctors of color.
“Some want to see mental health professionals who look like them and have a common identity,” he said. “And in some cases there may not be too many.
The study also found changes in the ways students interacted with substances. Alcohol use was at an all-time low, with 54% of students reporting no drinking in the two weeks prior to completing the survey. However, it was not clear whether students used substances less overall. 22% of students reported using marijuana in the 30 days prior to taking the survey, a two-point increase from Winter/Spring 2021. 17% of students reported vaping, also a two-point increase.
Heinze said an important next step will be to create a resource that schools can use to find out what kinds of mental health programs will best suit their situation. He also believed that more schools could have standard mental health screenings for students and saw the potential for online or hybrid mental health support as a means of getting students to access services more quickly.
But according to Jennifer Rothman, senior manager of information, support and education for youth and young adults at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation are likely to continue to increase unless the underlying causes are changed.
“I think we’ll see at least the same numbers next year because we still have the same stressors,” she said. “Our best path is to put more time, energy and funding into providing services for these students to support them.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.