The Rise in College Student Mental Health Issues

By Simone Figueroa, Co-Founder and President, U-Thrive Educational Services  

In the article Why Focusing on College Students’ Mental Health is a Must Do, Not a Nice to Do, I shared why it is imperative for higher education institutions to prioritize student mental health and offered solutions on how to proactively do so. However, it is also important to “peel back the onion” and understand the potential root causes for the increase in stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide ideations experienced by college students today. 

1. Students are not equipped to handle setbacks or deal with failure

Many college students are used to receiving high marks in elementary and secondary school and thus never adequately learned how to handle struggles and failures. We do a great job teaching students how to succeed academically, but do little to teach them how to succeed socially, emotionally, and mentally. These skills are arguably as important if not more. This is compounded by the fact that there are also “helicopter” parents and teachers who award normal behavior in an attempt to protect children from negative feelings, such as the case by distributing participation trophies. This, however, is doing them an extreme disservice; “a consequence of excessive coddling is that kids then don’t learn how to cope with disappointment, adjust to tough feedback or develop general resiliency skills”  (Henriques, 2014). These negative effects are then magnified when they are off on their own for the very first time in college.

2. Increase in Social Media Use  

With the advent of social media, now more than ever students compare themselves with others and thus the scope of achievement has been broadened beyond one’s own achievement to include social comparison. There is absolutely a link between depression and time spent on social media, which has steadily been on the rise (Kingkade, 2017). According to Eagan et. al (2016), the number of students on social media has skyrocketed. In both 2011 and 2014, 27.2% spent at least six hours per week on social media versus a whopping 40.9% reported in 2016. 

3. Negative Stories in the News 

According to a 2018 study conducted by the American Psychological Association on the stressors affecting Generation Z, the issues reported in the news were major contributors, more so than for other generations. Our youth has chronically been exposed to stories of families being torn due to deportation, increased gun violence including mass school shootings, high-profile sexual assault cases, a polarizing political climate, and most recently, a global pandemic and a movement to address the prevalence of systemic racism in the United States.  

4. Lack of Meaning or Purpose in Life

Another potential contributing factor to the increase in stress among college students is a felt sense of lack of meaning or purpose in life. According to Henriques (2014) instead of a moral compass, people have been given enormous freedom to construct their own lives and make their own moral decisions. Although this outcome has had many positive elements, it also has resulted in large numbers of people, at least in America, who are fundamentally unsure when it comes to their philosophy of life”. Knowing this, college campuses can do a better job with helping students explore these existential questions like, “Who am I? What am I meant to do?” during these pivotal years. 

5. COVID-19 

As if there weren’t already enough reasons contributing to the increase in mental health distress experienced by college students over the past several years, we will surely see an even greater rise as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic. While we still do not know the lasting impacts the coronavirus will have on student mental health, the initial data gathered is saddening. According to a survey conducted in April 2020 by Active Minds, 80% of college students report that COVID-19 has negatively impacted their mental health and 1 in 5 say their mental health has significantly worsened under COVID-19.  The pandemic forced students to leave campus, become socially isolated, adapt to a foreign way of learning, miss milestone occasions such as graduation ceremonies, and it continues to present uncertainty for the future. 

Unfortunately, as with many crises, the pandemic is highlighting societal health disparities and is having a disproportionate impact on marginalized groups, which further impacts college students in this category. According to Yusen Zhai, racism and xenophobia tend to emerge whenever infectious disease outbreaks occur. This is compounded by the fact that marginalized groups encounter various barriers to mental health services, which only continues to widen health disparities. As a result, it is up to higher education institutions to ensure that they are providing adequate mental health support to all students, but especially those from marginalized populations (Aten, 2020). 

According to Davis (2020) before the Coronavirus pandemic, 60% of college students polled already felt that their universities did not do a good job of helping them manage their mental health. With so much uncertainty, the future continues to be a source of angst and stress for Gen Z students. Higher education institutions can help by proactively providing college students with the tools and resources to weather these difficult storms by embedding mental and emotional wellness programs in both curricular and co-curricular offerings. 

About the author

Simone Figueroa graduated Cum Laude from the University of Florida with a Bachelor’s degree in Finance and concentration in Spirituality and Health. Simone graduated top of her class from Columbia University with a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology in Education with an emphasis on Mind-Body Medicine. During her studies at Columbia University, she took a year long practicum in Positive Psychology and became fascinated with and quickly saw a need for Positive Education, which led to the start of U-Thrive Educational Services. Simone lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband, Isaac, and her dog, Diesel, and has a passion for traveling, hiking, and spending quality time with family and friends.

Contact: simone@uthriveeducation.com 

References

Active Minds (2020). COVID-19 Impact on College Student Mental Health Survey  

American Psychological Association (2018). Stress in America: Generation Z. Stress in America™ Survey https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2018/stress-gen-z.pdf

Aten, J. D., Ph.D. (2020, July 16). COVID-19 Mental Health Challenges for College Students. Psychology Today. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hope-resilience/202007/covid-19-mental-health-challenges-college-students

Davis, D. (2020, June, 14). THE STATE OF GEN Z: How the youngest Americans are dealing with a world in crisis and a future that’s been put on hold. Business Insider. Retrieved from 

https://www.businessinsider.com/gen-z-mental-health-coronavirus-george-floyd-protests-2020-6#as-the-most-social-driven-generation-gen-zers-were-already-acutely-aware-of-crises-in-the-world-around-them-2

Eagan, M. K., Stolzenberg, E. B., Zimmerman, H. B., Aragon, M. C., Whang Sayson, H., & Rios-Aguilar, C. (2017). The American freshman: National norms fall 2016. Los Angeles:

Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA. 

Henriques, G., PhD. (2014, February 21). What is Causing the College Student Mental Health Crisis? Psychology Today. doi:https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory

Kingkade, T. (2017, December 6). College Freshmen Are More Depressed And Alone Than Ever. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/05/college-students-depressed-ucla_n_6624012.html

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