Mental Health

Mental health concerns among students: evidence and implications

Mental health problems can affect many areas of student life and are a significant concern worldwide. Poor mental health can reduce the quality of life, affect concentration, and impact student academic success.

Mental health problems can affect many areas of student life and are a significant concern worldwide. Poor mental health can reduce the quality of life, affect concentration, and impact student academic success.  

In a 2015 study done by the American College Health Association, students identified stress (30%), anxiety (22%), difficulty sleeping (20%), and depression (14%) as the top mental health issues that affected their academic performance. In fact, Kessler, Foster, Saunders, and Stang discovered that more than 4.29 million people did not finish their studies due to mental health-related issues in a 1995 study. The team of researchers found that a failure to complete education as expected impacts not only the student but also society.

Attending college is stressful. While the movies would have you believe college is all fun, parties, and lifelong friendships, this is not the case for many students. Stressful tasks, rigid academic schedules, and outside obligations mark a student’s college years. On top of this, the vast majority of students must cope with the looming debt of student loans hanging over their heads.

The majority of mental health disorders have their peak onset during young adulthood. Kessler et al. observed that by 25 years of age, 75% of those who would suffer from mental health disorders had experienced their first onset. Among the most common conditions that students deal with are anxiety disorders. It is estimated that 11.9 % of college students suffer from an anxiety disorder, with social phobia being among the top forms and having a median onset of 7-14 years of age. Illnesses such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or GAD tend to begin just before starting college or early in a student’s academic career.

Along with anxiety, depression tends to be prevalent among college students. Current estimates show that an expected 7-9% of college students suffer from depression and that more than half of these cases had an early onset during childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood.  Other studies have shown an elevated risk for mood disorders beginning in the early teens and increasing with age.

Although it is not a specific diagnosis or condition, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young adults age 15-24 and is a significant issue within a college environment. Suicide attempts may be associated with feelings of stress, self-doubt, pressure to succeed, financial uncertainty, disappointment, and loss, all factors that are common within college life. While the strain of academic education may contribute to suicide, other factors also increase risk. For example, boys are four times more likely to die from suicide than girls, but girls are more likely to attempt suicide than boys.  

Eating disorders are also a significant concern among college students. Many students are on their own for the first time and are facing new challenges and stressors. The pressure to fit in, the stress of family expectations, or strict academic schedules can all contribute to the development of eating disorders. Bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating are common among college students, with females being more likely than males to suffer from these conditions.

Outside of those issues listed above, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common issue among college students. Between 2 and 8 % of college students have ADHD, and approximately one-fourth of students receiving disability services have been diagnosed. ADHD has been linked to poor academic performance, social difficulties, and an increased risk for alcohol and drug use. The impacts of ADHD can quickly take its toll on a student’s academic performance, thus, affecting their overall wellbeing and increasing their risk for suicide.

Finally, there is a significant concern for substance use and abuse within the college environment. The use of alcohol and drugs peaks during the young adult years, usually tapering off with age. Unfortunately, this use can become a significant issue and impact students’ educational performance or force them out of school altogether.  It is estimated that one in five college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD) with 12.5 % alcohol dependence and 7.8 % alcohol abuse. Studies show that nearly half of all college students indulge in binge drinking (44%), a figure that has remained stable for more than a decade despite immense efforts to curb the behavior.

The top presenting concern among college students is anxiety, although other mental health issues are not far behind. College students are under immense pressure, which can impact their mental health by exasperating already present problems. There is a growing concern for the increased prevalence of mental health conditions on campus and an ongoing hunt for resources to help students cope. This issue is even more accurate now, with many students returning to in-person classes following a transition to online studies during the Coronavirus pandemic. Managing full-time studies is hard enough without having to worry about your mental health. Students suffering from anxiety, depression, or any other form of mental health concerns should have access to the supports they need to succeed.

Schools must offer support services openly and regularly to all students, and things like counseling and psychotherapy should be accessible on-campus. It is estimated a campus of 10,000 students will see a student suicide every 2-3 years, a significant and concerning number. According to The American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment (2012), “more than 6 percent of students admit to seriously thinking about suicide with another 1.1 percent having attempted suicide in the past.”  

Many young adults attending college show an increased risk of suicide, and we cannot ignore these factors any longer. The transition from high school to college can be challenging, especially for students who already suffer from mental health concerns. Students from all walks of life may struggle with sleep deprivation, substance abuse, and other risky behavior during their college career that could increase their risk for suicide. Without family watching over them while they are away at college, it is easy for mental health issues to spiral out of control or go unnoticed. While attending college is seen as a protective measure against suicide, it increases risk due to stress and isolation. Campuses must be sure to provide students, especially those in their first years, with ongoing supports as they transition.

The rates of suicide among young people ages 15-24 have tripled since the 195, and this issue must become the focus of schools and families alike if there is any hope for young college students today.    


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