College Students’ Mental Health During COVID-19

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Written by: Mary Fulton
May 25, 2021

As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted life and learning on colleges campuses across the country, concerns mounted about the potential impact on students’ mental health. The emerging data, however, are somewhat mixed with respect to the effects on students, especially with surveys that often capture a particular point in time. Still, state policy leaders seem to be paying more attention to student’s mental health and well-being over the past couple of years.  

Preliminary data from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health indicated that one-third of students who sought mental health services in fall 2020 cited the pandemic, while two-thirds identified other reasons. Regardless, 85% of students seeking mental health care reported that COVID-19 had negatively impacted at least one aspect of their life.  

Almost 75% of students reported their mental health had worsened since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a 2020 survey. Still, three-quarters of respondents felt optimistic or hopeful about their school-related goals and future job prospects. In addition, most students reported receiving information regarding mental health and coping strategies. Another survey found that 56% of students said they were at least “somewhat” anxious about the COVID-19 pandemic. However, 77% of students had not used mental health support services and nearly one-third said they were unsure of the resources available at their institution. 

Further, 58% of college presidents identified the “mental health of faculty and staff" as the second most pressing concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a March 2021 survey. 

While states have proposed and enacted numerous policies to address K-12 students’ mental health needs since 2019, policymakers’ are increasing their focus on postsecondary students and the pandemic may be accelerating awareness and response.  

In 2019, Illinois enacted H.B. 2125 that requires public colleges and universities to raise mental health awareness through student orientation sessions, integrated curricula and information on their websites. Institutions also must develop an online mental health screening tool, policies to identify and address student mental health needs, and training for campus staff and peer support programs. In addition, campuses are required to form partnerships with local mental health service providers to improve overall campus mental wellness. 

The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education recently unveiled a plan to tap $1.5 million in federal funds to strengthen college students’ mental health, primarily in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan includes funds for mental health programs, training for campus personnel and web-based interventions for students. The council also launched a virtual support network for high school seniors in the GEAR UP program. 

New Jersey lawmakers are considering A.B. 2293 that would require institutions to implement suicide prevention programs, provide training to personnel, raise awareness of mental health services, and establish a mental health crisis assessment and response plan.

In TexasS.B. 1521 would create a task force to study and evaluate mental health services provided at higher education institutions. The task force would be required to submit a report and any recommendations to state policy and higher education leaders.  

Regardless of whether colleges hold classes in-person, remotely or through a hybrid model this fall, the lessons learned during the pandemic may offer a guide for addressing students’ mental wellness in the coming years. While they faced several challenges, 99% of campus counseling centers reported success in transitioning to telehealth, which can provide flexibility and options for students. Based partly on responses to a survey, one article offered several ideas for improving mental health services that include reducing wait times to receive assistance, providing proactive support, and offering peer training and support groups. 

We will continue to track state actions related to college and K-12 student mental health in our State Education Policy Tracking tool that features current and past state legislation.  Be sure to also check out a whole suite of mental health resources on our Student Health and Wellness Key Issue page.  

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