With campuses closed indefinitely, college students face an uncertain future. Students are dealing with increased anxiety from isolation, world events, and loss of support networks.

COVID-19 Updates

Coronavirus and the Student Mental Health Crisis

  • COVID-19 has accentuated worries about a growing student mental health crisis.
  • Common springtime stressors — grades, graduating, finding a job — have been heightened.
  • Many institutions are offering remote mental health resources and need-based assistance.

By the end of March, over 14 million U.S. college students were impacted by campus closures due to coronavirus. Now, both students and schools are in limbo. Classes continue online, but campus life — with its vital resources and support networks — has come to a halt.

Due to these disruptions, college students are reporting increased stress. This adds to ongoing concerns about student mental health. Studies show that rates of anxiety, depression, and stress in college students have risen significantly over the past three decades.

COVID-19 represents a mental health crisis for already-stressed students: In the last five years, mental health clinic use by college students grew by 35%.

According to surveys conducted by American College Health Association and independent researchers, mental health clinic use among college students has swelled. In the last five years, the number of students receiving mental health treatment grew by 35% at the largest state universities while enrollment grew by 5%. Now, an already vulnerable population is at even greater risk.

In addition to the worrisome global situation, college students are dealing with the loss of school support networks, on-campus jobs, subsidized housing, work-study programs, and access to technology. Students are struggling financially, academically, and emotionally as a result of campus closures.

A recent op-ed from InsideHigher Ed compared the potential reopening of schools post-coronavirus to what reopening looked like after September 11, 2001. In the past, schools have offered classes and counseling to help readjust students after disasters. For the time being, university support will have to be virtual.

The Mental Health Crisis Among College Students

Even before the pandemic, more college students were anxious and stressed than ever before. The downward trend in college student mental health has been notable for decades.

From the early '90s to the early '00s, there was a 42% increase in college students' use of counseling centers, according to the American College Health Association. Since then, rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts among college students have continued to rise.

In a nationwide study published by the Journal of Adolescent Health, rates of moderate to severe depression and anxiety among U.S. college students both rose substantially over the last several years.

College students experiencing

Moderate to Severe Depression

2007: 23.2% ➞ 2018: 41.1%
College students experiencing

Moderate to Severe Anxiety

2013: 17.9% ➞ 2018: 34.4%

Source: Journal of Adolescent Health

While persistent anxiety and depression figure into some students' experiences, for others mental health is tied to external factors. For those students, stressful events like final exams and financial deadlines trigger bouts of anxiety.

The Harvard Health Blog suggests that most students feel peak anxiety during the initial transition to college. Now, closed campuses have abruptly sent students home. The loss of school life is an upset to both routine and expectations for the future, not to mention social networks. The transition is a kind of reverse culture shock.

In an informal survey conducted by Rise, a college affordability advocacy group, 75% of the U.S. college students that responded were experiencing higher levels of anxiety, stress, and depression due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The 521 university and community college students surveyed nationwide reported experiencing the following:

Being forced to drop classes or disenroll 6%
Lacking safe and reliable housing 17%
Lacking access to a mobile device or WiFi 20%
Lacking reliable access to healthy meals 28%
Being unexpectedly laid off from a job or having hours significantly cut 52%
Having higher levels of anxiety, depression, or stress than before 75%

Source: Rise

These results support a recent BestColleges report on increased stress levels among students due to COVID-19. The BestColleges survey, conducted through YouGov, also suggests college students are increasingly worried about their ability to enroll or re-enroll in college as a result of these educational disruptions. This is particularly true among non-white repondents, such as black and Hispanic students.

Exacerbating these concerns, not all students have access to telemental health services, or counseling that can be conducted online. While some college counseling centers are able to offer remote appointments, others are prohibited from doing so by state licensing boards.

So what resources are available to students to help in this time of crisis?

Accommodations for College Students Due to COVID-19

College students who are feeling extra stress due to academic and financial concerns should take advantage of school resources and federal relief.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) directs postsecondary institutions to make accommodations for students. For its part, the ED is relaxing rules around term and academic year lengths, student visa requirements, distance education, and financial aid.

This new leniency means students can take a leave of absence in the middle of a course, program, or internship, which allows them to complete coursework after the traditional term's end.

Tips for College Student Mental Health

If you are or know a college student dealing with increased anxiety or depression:

  • Talk to trusted relatives and friends.
  • Inform your instructors and academic advisor of your difficulties.
  • Contact your campus health center and see what options are available to you.
  • Seek out telemental health services covered by your insurance.
  • Request specific school accommodations, like additional time on assignments or pass/fail grade options.

Students who are unable to pursue their course of study at their home institution due to COVID-19 can continue at another institution without disrupting their Title IV assistance. Students can also earn credits at their home institution for courses completed at other schools — something that typically isn't possible when earning final credits toward a degree.

In addition to increased flexibility at the academic level, the federal response includes student debt relief and, for independent students, stimulus checks that can help offset some of the unforeseen costs and consequences of campus closures.

Like professors and administrators, school mental health practitioners may not be on campus, but they are still at work. Many schools are offering clinic appointments via video conferencing. Check out your school's counseling center website to see what services they are still able to provide. Many college faith programs are also offering virtual mental health support.

Online Learning Offers Enormous Benefits, But Can Challenge Mental Health

The world has shifted online, and a significant portion of it will stay there. According to a survey of public opinion during the pandemic, over a quarter of Americans now prefer online college for their future education.

At the same time, many students are struggling to stay motivated in their studies. Technological literacy is increasingly important, but overuse can exacerbate anxiety and depression. A 2018 study linked increased screen time to a decreased sense of well-being. Now, in addition to dealing with pandemic-related stress, college students may be dealing with the mental health fallout of studying, working, and socializing almost entirely online.

[Be] sure to reach out to support services at your school or in your local area, and be open and honest with friends and family you trust.

College student mental health has been a public health and policy concern for over a decade. It's a big issue requiring big solutions. For now, college students can best manage their mental health by tapping into online college health resources, then logging off.

If you're struggling with anxiety or depression, be sure to reach out to support services at your school or in your local area, and be open and honest with friends and family you trust. You can also check out our guide from Jessi Gold, M.D., on how to maintain optimal mental health as a student, or our recent article on the benefits of meditation for college students.