Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, data were pointing to a mental health crisis among young people in the US, with financial, academic, family, relationships and employment factors putting a mental strain on the country’s youth. In 2018, about 8.9 million young people aged 18-25 years, or nearly 1 in every 3, reported having any mental illness. The pandemic and its impact on our daily lives has made this crisis even more acute. In addition to impacting the physical health of many young people, the pandemic interrupted employment and education, led to the loss of security and safety, disrupted health check-ups, and caused young people to miss out on important life events, such as graduations - all of which have worsened the mental health burden among young people.
Universities across the country are also seeing a rise in mental health illnesses. A recent nationwide study by the Healthy Minds Network revealed that depression and anxiety are increasing among college students in the US. According to the study, 53 percent of the students surveyed in the fall of 2020 screened positive for depression and/or anxiety. The study, which surveyed 30,000 college students in the country, also showed that mental health conditions impacted the academic performance of 83 percent of the students.
While mental health challenges impact students across the country, it affects students of color and low income individuals differently given the increased stressors of COVID-19, financial stress and racial injustice. In an interview with THE BRINK, Sarah Ketchen Lipson, the co–principal investigator of the study said that, students of color and low income students “are more likely to be grieving the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19” and “facing financial stress” than other groups in the US.
Can universities help resolve this issue?
Universities can play an important role in improving the outcomes of students' mental health, and scholars in the field suggest that universities should follow a much broader and proactive role.
Professor Lipson suggests that university teaching staff and faculty should “put mechanisms in place that can accommodate students’ mental health needs.” For example, instructors can be flexible with deadlines, they can encourage their students to create a healthy work/sleep schedule, or pay attention to missing students and ask how they are doing.
Karen Dobkins, professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC San Diego, believes that universities can enable an environment where human connectivity and communication flourish. She says that students are often affected by loneliness due to the absence of human connectivity and calls for ‘well-being’ courses to be part of the curriculum and taught by professors.
In a talk with the UC, San Diego’s THE GUARDIAN, Dobkins says, “I think if the professors are teaching these courses it would also help with the connection between professors and students. Students don’t feel seen by their professors,” notes Dobkins.
Dr. Graham Bodie, a researcher at the University of Mississippi, believes that innovative mental health tools could be one solution to addressing mental health issues on campuses. Bodie notes that universities are often too “overextended and financially strapped to provide students with adequate social support in crisis times” and advises “versatile programming and platforms” to tackle mental health challenges.
He is particularly interested in exploring the impact of text-based applications and is currently conducting a study at the University of Mississippi using HearMe, which will train students to become listeners on our app to test the effectiveness of tools like ours using anonymous peer support for universities. Students can be particularly effective as listeners on college campuses given their ability to relate and understand the circumstances of other students better.
Students agree on this as well. Shannon McClure, a graduate IMC student and current listener on HearMe, notes to Hotty Toddy that, “It is completely anonymous, where we just get to know their name and make them feel a little bit more comfortable.”
More change needed for the future
One important finding in the Healthy Minds Study is that while stigma remains a challenge, a majority of students are open to having honest, frank conversations about their mental health. Only 6% of the students surveyed said that they would think less of someone who has received mental health treatment.
Despite increasing recognition of the problem and decreasing stigma, much remains to be done to address problems of mental health in young people. Universities should revisit their approaches and find new strategies to help tackle this crisis on their campuses. HearMe for Students is one way that campuses can support students amid the continued challenges of COVID-19 - and beyond - but a comprehensive approach will be necessary if we are to further momentum and create real change for the lives of students everywhere.