How does college student mental health compare to K12?

Costs and financial constraints proved to be a recurring theme in college students' mental health troubles.

College students are nearly 50% more likely to suffer from mental health challenges than are high school students, declares a new survey from health insurance giant UnitedHealthcare.

Specifically, 77% of college students reported that they or a classmate or friend struggled with some form of mental health challenge. Anxiety/stress (55%), depression (41%) and suicidal ideation and intent (13%) were the most likely forms of mental illness mentioned. The rate for high schoolers was small in comparison: anxiety/stress (35%), depression (20%) and suicidal ideation and intent (9%).

Over 500 students at both the K12 and postsecondary levels were surveyed last fall semester.

Several factors play into why college students might be struggling more. First off, the rate of parents being aware of their child’s struggles is far lower once they’re in college. The rate at which students reported depression was 23 percentage points above parents’ estimates; the gap was 20 percentage points for anxiety/stress. On the other hand, parents of K12 students were only five percentage points off in reporting their child’s depression and only one point off in reporting anxiety.

Secondly, only 42% of college students reported seeking help, whereas 51% of K12 students did so. A quarter of college students—the biggest proportion—cited that care was too expensive.

College students bogged down by money

Costs and financial constraints proved to be a recurring theme in college students’ mental health troubles. While high schoolers were most likely to blame bullying, 44% of college students reported financial concerns as the top factor in mental distress. About a quarter of both groups mentioned social media content.

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One report by Trellis Strategies dives deeper into the correlation between costs and mental health, finding a link between anxiety and depression and food and housing insecurity.  The nonprofit and research firm discovered in its Fall 2023 Student Financial Wellness Survey that 45% of its surveyed students reported low food security, 23% of which reported “very low” food security. Housing insecurity followed up closely at 42%, and another 14% reported homelessness.

Students who reported any needs insecurity had a far higher likelihood of reporting mental health challenges. The survey found 53% of suffering students to be experiencing a generalized anxiety disorder, compared with 29% of students without need insecurity. Likewise, 42% struggling with food or housing needs also reported experiencing a major depressive disorder; 20% of students free of these concerns mentioned depression.

Over 62,000 students contributed to the survey across 142 institutions, according to a Trellis Strategies spokesperson.

“Academic pressure, social isolation, basic needs challenges and financial stress can all be contributing factors to this condition,” read the report. “A demanding academic workload, coupled with pressure to excel, may exacerbate stress levels among these students.”

The report suggests that mental health care will be more effective if institutions also tackle students’ food insecurity, housing and other basic needs.  

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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