Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, rising mental health problems in the United States had health advocates and providers worried about the need for additional support for struggling college students—and the ability of schools to provide it. The pandemic has only exacerbated this worry. COVID-19 risk mitigation measures, such as continued physical isolation, put students at greater risk of facing mental health impacts from the pandemic. Without proper support and resources for students with mental health needs, there are a range of potentially serious and lasting consequences, including more students dropping out of school, higher rates of substance abuse, and lower lifetime earning potential.

According to a recent nationwide survey of 502 college students enrolled at two-and-four-year institutions, an overwhelming majority (85 percent) of students said they have experienced increased stress and/or anxiety as a result of COVID-19. In a recent survey measuring psychological distress among adults in the United States, researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that 24 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 reported serious psychological distress, compared to 4 percent in April 2018.

This increased need to support students' mental health is confronting a system that was already taxed before the pandemic materialized. Prior to the pandemic, colleges, particularly community colleges, had insufficient resources to meet students' mental health needs. And students need help. For instance, a 2016 RAND study of nearly 40,000 students on California's public college campuses found nearly 1 in 5 students reported serious mental health issues, and only 20 percent of those students were engaging in mental health services either on or off campus. A 2018 study (PDF) by the American College Health Foundation found that at any time within the last 12 months, 41 percent of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function and 62 percent felt overwhelming anxiety.

To be sure, the pandemic has worsened circumstances. So, what can colleges do to help students during this extremely challenging period?

  1. Enhance and expand telemental health service
  2. Establish partnerships with community-based providers (and foster coordination/collaboration between institutes and the community)
  3. Promote and support peer-based organizations that focus on reducing stigma and increasing peer-to-peer helping behavior
  4. Engage with local and national crisis centers (both financially and through capacity building)

Read the full article about college students' mental health by Lisa Sontag-Padilla at RAND Corporation.