College students’ stress levels are ‘bubbling over.’ Here’s why, and how schools can help

College is a time of major transition and of stress. During the pandemic, students have been struggling to cope with ever-increasing levels of mental distress among students. A recent study by The American College Health Association found that one in four students had considered suicide. John Yang looks at the problem and solutions, on and off campus, for NewsHour's “Rethinking College” series.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    College is a time of major transition and of stress. Add in the pandemic, and colleges are left struggling to cope with ever-increasing levels of mental distress among students.

    John Yang looks at the problem and what can done on and off campus for our series Rethinking College.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, a study this year by the American College Health Association found that 48 percent of college students reported moderate or severe psychological stress, 53 percent reported being lonely, and one in four had considered suicide.

    Many college campuses are scrambling to expand and rethink the ways they help students cope with mental health concerns.

    Riana Elyse Anderson is an assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan.

    Thanks for being with us.

    This issue, I think, really got a lot of attention nationally when the University of North Carolina had sort of a mental health break for students after there were two apparent suicides. But you study this issue. You teach young people on a college campus. What do you see? Talk about your personal experience to sort of give our viewers a sense of this issue.

    Riana Elyse Anderson, University of Michigan: Sure.

    So, we know, over the past year, we have watched stress, anxiety and depression go up about fourfold for everyone. And that absolutely includes our young folks. So, whether these are pediatric populations or the collegiate population, we're watching this number just balloon, and that's on top of what we saw even as a pattern before COVID.

    So we're watching college students really get impacted by the comparison that they're seeing in their classmates online, in social media. They're using comparison and they're feeling particularly anxious about it for themselves.

  • John Yang:

    What were the factors before the pandemic?

  • Riana Elyse Anderson:

    Social media is one thing that has really ballooned in this past decade, where children and adolescents are now college students who have been utilizing those strategies for the past several years now are starting to see, oh, that person got into college, this person scored this on this exam, whereas before you could only look as far as the cafeteria, right?

    You didn't know what was happening nationwide. But now you have this greater comparison, and it's really impacting one's well-being.

  • John Yang:

    Is there a sense of the — of a generational difference, that young people now are perhaps more concerned about mental health issues?

  • Riana Elyse Anderson:

    A wonderful article just came out looking at even the generation like myself, which is just one above the millennials, who really started thinking about mental health a bit differently than our generation before us.

    We're starting to see now that generational divide in the Gen Z'ers, who are really staking a claim and saying, not only am I noticing it, but I want to take those days like the UNC students demanded, or I have to see a counselor, rather than go to class, rather than go to work.

    And that's something our generation or those above never thought to do, never thought possible. So, on the one hand, what a wonderful thing to do and have that autonomy to say. It's another thing, though, when collegiate professors like myself are now saying, what do we do? How do we contend with teaching, with meeting, with doing the things we have to do for school to continue and meeting the needs of our students?

    So, it's just challenging now for us to contend with that.

  • John Yang:

    Are there differences along sort of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic lines? Thinking particularly first-generation college students whose families may not be prepared to help them through this.

  • Riana Elyse Anderson:

    Certainly, COVID has impacted that.

    So we're seeing this dual impact of not only the resources that have been impacted by COVID, but the socioeconomic and racial disparities. So you're watching folks who perhaps didn't have the access or the tablets, the technology to do the work from home, or perhaps they didn't want to show their screens.

    And so that's lessening the amount of time that they're on screen. They're feeling less connected to folks. And now that they're back into a college setting, that year has really impacted them. And they're trying to understand, how do they find community? How are they now exposed to some of the things that they weren't exposed to last year, including discrimination or rejection?

    So they're contending with a lot of things that are unique for them relative to their classmates.

  • John Yang:

    Talk about how colleges and universities can address this. How can they help students deal with this?

    And, also, you talk about students being more willing to seek help. Are they finding — or are they being a little overwhelmed or finding greater demand than they have the supply for?

  • Riana Elyse Anderson:

    Absolutely. So, you said it well.

    And the ways that we can combat that are prevention and intervention strategies. So, with respect to what you just said, the CAP services, or counseling and psych services, that most universities have, if we know what these numbers are, we can plan accordingly. We can make sure that we have referrals in the community.

    We can expand the number of people on staff. So intervention strategies, once we know that mental health problems are bubbling over, can be something that we can do. But we can also engage in prevention strategies. That is, can we reduce the amount of assignments that we're giving? Can we take more days, like UNC did, as a community, so that no one's e-mailing, no one — it's not just who is saying, I'm going to take an individual day.

    Your professors, your administration, no one is e-mailing or expecting anything of you, so that we can prevent some of those problems that we're seeing in the first place.

  • John Yang:

    Riana Elyse Anderson from the University of Michigan, thank you very much.

  • Riana Elyse Anderson:

    Thank you.

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