Student mental health, already vulnerable, continues in “wrong direction” due to pandemic

Recent studies on the mental health of high school and college students fully underscore concerns about the emotional toll the pandemic has taken on these cohorts. While the unprecedented challenges students have faced as a result of the global health crisis — including a pivot to online classes, severely disrupted academic terms, and concerns about personal health and safety — medical experts who have tracked student wellness note that the pandemic has only exacerbated an already deteriorating situation.

“We’ve been tracking persistent sadness, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts and behavior for several years,” says Dr. Kathleen Ethier, chief of the Adolescence and School Health Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “In the ten years leading up to the pandemic, mental health and suicide risk were going in the wrong direction.”

According to a recent CDC survey, by 2021, more than a third of high school students surveyed reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44 percent said they felt persistently sad or hopeless in the past year. The research, based on a survey of 7,700 high school students across the country, follows a previous CDC study that found a 40 percent increase in lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness among high school students from 2009 to 2019.

The isolation and lack of connection caused by the pandemic made the largely unstable situation even more vulnerable, with students unable to access the human contact and personal services they would normally use for support, Ethier notes.

“What we have are the existing contributions to poor mental health, and then the existing support to improve mental health is gone,” Ethier says. “So one of the really important findings was the extent to which connectedness at school contributes to well-being, the understanding that the people at your school care about you, that you feel close to them, that they are there for you that way.” .”

Likewise, a new study led by Dr. Sarah Lipson of Boston University found that the mental health of college students in the US declined steadily from 2013 to 2021, with an overall 135 percent increase in depression symptoms and a 110 percent increase in anxiety symptoms during that period. The study, based on survey data collected from 350,000 college students at more than 350 campuses, saw a significant increase in anxiety and depression during the peak of the pandemic, but Lipson says this is more of a continuation of a trend than a unique peak in prevalence.

The factors contributing to the stress students currently endure range from the role race and ethnicity play in terms of mental health trends, to emotional and physical abuse at home, to the fundamental problem of hunger, experts say.

“The mental health crisis exists far beyond the college and university environment,” Lipson says.

However, the potential to intervene and reach students at a uniquely important time in life is significant. “It may not be perfect, but many four-year colleges offer some of the best mental health resources people will ever have” because these institutions can use their resources to remove barriers to care such as lack of available providers, long wait times and financial constraints, Lipson adds.

As completion rates and graduate outcomes are directly related to the overall well-being of students, providing appropriate and relevant services is increasingly becoming a priority on college campuses. For example, Marquette University is currently building an $80 million “wellness and recreation center” designed to bring together mental health services, sexual assault clinics, and addiction clinics with traditional medical and recreational facilities under one roof.

“This will be a transformative project for our campus, especially our students,” said Marquette president Michael Lovell, adding that the university is exploring partnerships with health care systems and community organizations to maximize the number of services the facility provides.

“I want to take any stigma away from the mental health piece,” Lovell said. “We are really focused on the success of our students, to make sure they never end up in a health or wellness crisis.”

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