The Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses

by Rachel Bishop | June 1, 2020
The Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses

Part one of a three-part series on how higher ed institutions can address the growing mental health crisis on today's college and university campuses. Read part two here and part three here.

The Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses

The COVID-19 outbreak has made the mental health crisis on college campuses much worse. Being at home more often than usual and dealing with a family job loss can be stressful. According to Active Minds, 91% of college students state that the COVID-19 crisis has caused them to feel anxious, 81% report they are sad and disappointed, and 80% feel lonely and isolated. Such large numbers are alarming because students with poor mental health are more likely to procrastinate, miss class, take a leave of absence, and drop out.

Stress before COVID-19

College has always been a stressful time in students’ lives as they struggle with more rigorous academics. Also, many students are away from home for the first time when they go to college. As a result, in the past decade or so, campuses have seen an uptick in student anxiety and depression that is different than previous generations. Even before the pandemic, one out of every three college students struggled with some type of mental health problem. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, the number of students seeking campus-based counseling increased at a rate five times more than enrollment between 2009 and 2015. Students are experiencing...

  • Anxiety: Today, two out of three college students report feeling “overwhelmingly” anxious. Anxiety was the number one complaint at campus health centers from 2009-2016.
  • Depression: 70% of teens rate anxiety and depression as a “major” problem among their peers. Further, 40% have experienced debilitating depression at least once in the past year.
  • Loneliness: College students struggle with strong feelings of isolation. In fact, the loneliest generation in the United States today is not the oldest Americans. Rather, it is the youngest—specifically, young adults between 18 and 22 years and of age, according to Cigna healthcare.
  • Suicide: Suicide rates among American 15-to-24-year-olds have risen 51% over the past 10 years. Further, suicide is now the second leading cause of death among college students. Around 13% of them report they have seriously considered taking their own life.

The mental health of Gen Z

The American Psychological Association (APA) finds that, among all generations, Gen Z (adolescents between 15 to 21) has the poorest mental health. Gen Z students were raised in a time of extreme stress and uncertainty. In addition to the fallout from the 2007 recession, they are dealing with the issues outlined below.

  • Gun violence: Seventy-five percent of Gen Zers say mass shootings are a major source of anxiety. Plus, 21% report that possible school shootings are a “constant” source of stress.
  • College costs: The cost of going to college climbed 56% between 2008 and 2018. Even before COVID-19, students were anxious about high tuition, student loans, and working while in school. Eighty-one percent of Gen Z students say that finances are a major source of stress.
  • Social media: Studies have found that the use of social media aligns with decreased self-esteem and increased feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. According to the APA, 45% of Gen Z say that they always feel judged. Plus, 38% report that social media makes them feel bad about themselves.

the mental health crisis on college campuses
To access the Definitive Guide for Higher Education Communications During COVID-19, click the image above.

The impact of COVID-19

Campus closures have only worsened students’ feelings of loneliness and anxiety. National surveys and analyses of social media posts find that students are concerned about the health of family and friends. Also, they are lonely because they miss the social network they had on campus. Many are struggling with their identity as a college student when not connected to campus and its community. Students are grieving the loss of campus traditions as well as missing summer internship experiences, which are critical to employment after college. Many wish they could continue to receive the critical mental health counseling they had on campus as it was free and discreet. Plus, they are worried that campuses will not reopen for the fall semester.

the mental health crisis on college campuses
To view an infographic that details 5 ways to improve the online learning experience for students, click the image above.

Online instruction

Students are also very frustrated with remote learning, which many feel is a lower quality experience than in-person teaching. This is especially true if the medium is new to the faculty. A national survey conducted by higher education marketing firm Simpson Scarborough found that the large majority of college students are unsatisfied, with 50% saying online instruction is “worse” than the education they received on campus, and 13% stating it is "a lot worse." Just 31% of students feel the quality of instruction is about the same. Therefore, it is not surprising that 41% of college students say their opinion of their school has worsened since COVID-19.

Financial stress

The financial impact of coronavirus has created a lot of stress among college students. Students and families facing layoffs, furloughs, and pay-cuts are questioning their ability to pay tuition for the summer or fall. Also, students are concerned about whether there will be jobs available for them when they graduate and whether they will be able to repay loans.

These issues most directly impact at-risk and low-income students. For many of these students, they are home with extended family living together in small spaces with little privacy. They may lack the food and housing security they had on campus. These students may also lack the tools and technology required to keep up with remote learning. Further, many low-income students are having to care for younger students while their parents work. Or, they might have to work themselves to help support their families.

LGBTQI+ students

Another at-risk group is LGBTQI students who may have returned to environments that are less supportive than campus. At home, many are faced with pretending to be another gender, answering to another name, or pretending to have a different sexuality for an extended (and unknown) period of time. As a result, they are experiencing increased anxiety and depression. Yet these students are also isolated from the support system they had on-campus. Even before COVID-19, LGBTQI students were more likely than any other student group to experience anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Since the pandemic began, calls to Trevor Project, a national LBGTQI+ mental health organization, have doubled.

Most students do not seek help

Research conducted before COVID-19 shows that while more students were making use of their campus mental health services, about 60-70% of college students with a mental illness were still not getting help. One problem might be a lack of enough counselors on college campuses. Another is that students do not know whether their symptoms are severe enough to warrant therapy. Further, they are often unaware of where to turn for help.

Learn more

In our next blog in this series, we will discuss the core elements that institutions should include in student communications during the time of COVID-19. These elements will help support students' mental health.


For a list of references with more information on the mental health crisis on college campuses, click here.

* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant.

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