4 actions for tackling campus anxiety and depression

Nearly 40% of undergraduates and graduate students screened positive for generalized anxiety disorder during COVID
By: | August 24, 2020
The number of graduate students who reported significant depression in 2020 doubled since a campus mental health survey done last year. (GettyImages/Caspar Benson)The number of graduate students who reported significant depression in 2020 doubled since a campus mental health survey done last year. (GettyImages/Caspar Benson)

Depression and anxiety are rising during COVID, particularly among low-income students, students of color, women, LGBTQ+ students and students who are caregivers.

Mental health problems were also more prevalent among students who struggled with the shift to online and distance learning, according to a mental health survey of 45,0000 students conducted in May-July 2020 at nine public research universities.

Another troubling finding: the number of graduate students who reported significant depression in 2020 doubled since last year, according to researchers at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education.

Nearly 40% of the undergraduates and graduate students surveyed also screened positive for generalized anxiety disorder.


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For undergraduates, students in the arts, humanities, communications and design fields report the highest rates of depression and anxiety, followed by students in social and behavioral sciences, STEM, business, and health sciences.

Difficulty transiting to remote instruction drove some of the increases in depression and anxiety. More than half of students who said they adapted “not well at all” to distance learning also reported experience anxiety depression.

But only about 20% of students who said the shift went “very well” also struggled emotionally, the survey found.

Taking action on mental health

The authors of the report recommended the following strategies for treating anxiety and depression on campus:

1. Allocate more resources, reduce barriers and increase communications: College and university leaders should expect an increased need for mental health treatment during the fall 2020 semester, regardless of whether students are on-campus or online.

Administrators should work to increase staff to offer more mental health appointments throughout the day as students have reported they did not have time to access treatment.

Administrators can also publicize the mental health resource extensively, and encourage faculty and staff to share the information on a variety of platforms, considering many students will remain remote in the fall.

In the past, students have also reported not knowing what services were available to them.


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2. Expand tele-counseling programs and focus on preventative services. Many state governments have enacted emergency executive orders that now allow mental health service providers to work remotely across state lines.

Through tele-counseling, colleges and universities should also offer alternative methods of delivery, such as group counseling.

Administrators should also try to develop stress reduction workshops and other preventative services.

3. Engage faculty and academic advising staff. Anxiety and depression will surely impact students’ engagement in class and other activities.

Faculty members should therefore embed mental health supports in their classes by adding health modules to learning management systems and listing mental health resources on their syllabi. These actions can de-stigmatize mental health disorders and increase the likelihood students will seek treatment.

The study also recommends that faculty and advising staff in academic programs with higher prevalence of depression and anxiety disorder receive additional training on identifying students with mental health risks.

Faculty and staff should pay particular attention to students who are struggling with online and distance learning.

4. Work alongside students.  Administrators should include student organizations when developing campus mental health strategies and interventions.


UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.


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