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Key Takeaways From The ACHA’s COVID-19 Mental Health Survey

In March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges and universities to shut down in-person operations, encourage students to leave on-campus living accommodations, and transition to a remote-learning model. The unprecedented conditions of the pandemic have put a strain on college and university student mental health, exacerbating an already-dire crisis on campus and forcing leaders to rethink how mental healthcare is delivered.

In July, the American College Health Association conducted a mental health survey for college and university students, and found increased rates of depression and financial stress among college-age individuals, as well as increased difficulties accessing campus mental resources amid the pandemic. The survey results offer data and insight into the scope of the challenges college students face, and can inform college leaders' decisions around providing mental healthcare to students amid the pandemic. 

Related Blog: Addressing Graduate Student Mental Health Concerns

Even prior to COVID-19, college or university officials had major concerns about the state of college or university student mental health. In 2019, a major study found that suicidal thinking, severe depression, and rates of self-injury among U.S. college students more than doubled over the last decade, as per Reuters. Evaluating data from two large annual surveys of college undergraduates between 2007-2018, researchers observed a profound worsening of mental health indicators including depression, anxiety, low flourishing, and suicidal planning or attempts, especially in the latter half of the decade. University counseling centers have struggled to manage the influx of students accessing mental healthcare in recent years, with many facing staffing shortages and leaving students with long wait times for sessions. 

The coronavirus outbreak means that mental health resources will be in even higher demand. Past surveys have already showed the negative impact of COVID-19 on college-age individuals - 81% of full-time college or university students reported facing financial difficulties during the pandemic, 93% of young adults said they’d been impacted by the pandemic, and 75% of surveyed college students reported higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.

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The ACHA survey offers further insights into how the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening the college mental health crisis, including ongoing financial stressors, discriminatory behavior they’ve faced as a result of the pandemic, and broader anxieties about how long the pandemic will last. Never before has there been a more dire need for effective, creative ways to raise awareness about and deliver care. By examining several key takeaways from the recent mental health survey, administrators can make more informed decisions moving forward. 

Key Takeaways From The ACHA’s Mental Health Survey

The ACHA mental health survey compiled answers from 18,764 students on over 14 campuses between March and May of 2020. The new set of survey items focused on students’ experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, including their attitudes, concerns, preventative behaviors, and their perceived supportiveness of colleges or universities related to COVID-19.

Related Blog: The Growing Trends in College Mental Health Statistics

Researchers found the information largely confirmed suspicions about how students are coping with the unprecedented crisis, but several takeaways can still be valuable for college counseling centers looking to better understand students’ needs or concerns. Below are several key takeaways that might assist with mental health planning: 

  • Financial stress, a known predictor of student mental health, has been significantly affected by the pandemic; 66% of students report the pandemic has caused more financial stress, and 35.7% reported their living situation has changed due to the pandemic. 
  • Increased rates of depression were reported among college students since colleges or universities closed in March, with nearly 30.5% reporting that mental health negatively impacted their academic performance versus 21.9% the prior fall. 

  • 66% of students reported that the pandemic has made it much more difficult to access mental healthcare, though overall, near 58.2% had not made an active effort to access care via the college or university 

  • 65% of students report being very concerned about the future, including the length and severity of the ongoing pandemic. Similarly, about 25.8% of people surveyed said they are very concerns about contracting the virus, while 64.4% said they were very or extremely concerned about a person they knew getting the virus. 

  • Meanwhile, students reported an increase in race-based discrimination as a result of the pandemic, with 6% of students having experienced discriminatory or hostile behavior as a result of the pandemic, and 41% of students reporting having witnessed race-based discrimination or hostile behavior as a result of the pandemic, either online or in-person. 

  • The survey also revealed interesting COVID-19 data, such as that 15% of students experienced a probable case of COVID-19, while less than 1% of students reported a case confirmed by a test. Among students who did report a probable case, 5.5% had symptoms that were severe, 35.1% reported moderate symptoms, 55.3% reported mild symptoms, and 4.1% reported being asymptomatic

  • Most students, around 84%, reported that public health agencies were the most trusted source of information amid the pandemic, with about 60% of students saying that they had been closely following recommended hygiene practices, such as hand-washing and mask-wearing, and 70% reporting following social or physical distancing measures closely. This information can prove valuable for schools that plan to bring students back to campus as part of a hybrid model, or for those looking for the most effective means of emergency communications. 

Following the publication of the survey, Mary Hoban, chief researcher for the ACHA, emphasized that many colleges had not yet properly implemented telehealth systems before the pandemic, and were scrambling to make mental health resources available quickly via an online platform when the data was collected in March and April, as per Inside Higher Education. Additionally, many college counseling centers struggled initially with state-level licensure issues that prohibit providing mental health services across state lines, but many of those regulations have been relaxed for the remainder of the public health emergency.   

Either way, the survey results demonstrate a great need to both expand telehealth counseling services, and to raise awareness for on-campus services amid the pandemic. Plans for the following year vary - while 41% of college presidents reported being concerned about the mental health of their students amid the pandemic, only 35% of college presidents reported plans to expand mental health resources or availability for the duration.

[Free Infographic] College Students & Coronavirus: A Rising Mental Health Crisis

Budget cuts brought on by the pandemic may further strain overtaxed counseling centers, but no matter what capacity a college or university has to bolster mental health response amid the pandemic, raising awareness about resources can be valuable. If students, faculty, and staff are aware of resources offered on campus, and given the tools necessary to seek care off-campus if possible, all community members can optimize available services. 

A mass notification solution can facilitate communications around mental health resources amid the ever-changing situation around COVID-19. Administrators should notify students if in-service counseling will be made available, or about which telehealth platform will be used for the current moment. An integrated campus safety app can further facilitate mental health outreach on campus. Students can use the app to access a directory of resources, including counseling center contact information and availability. 

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Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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