Stress, COVID-19 Affecting College Students' Mental Health

Jeff Craven

July 23, 2020

Socioeconomic, technological, cultural, and historical conditions are contributing to a mental health crisis among college students in the United States, according to Anthony L. Rostain, MD, MA, in a virtual meeting presented by Current Psychiatry and the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists.

A recent National College Health Assessment published in fall of 2018 by the American College Health Association found that one in four college students had some kind of diagnosable mental illness, and 44% had symptoms of depression within the past year.

The assessment also found that college students felt overwhelmed (86%), felt sad (68%), felt very lonely (63%), had overwhelming anxiety (62%), experienced feelings of hopelessness (53%), or were depressed to the point where functioning was difficult (41%), all of which was higher than in previous years. Students also were more likely than in previous years to engage in interpersonal violence (17%), seriously consider suicide (11%), intentionally hurt themselves (7.4%), and attempt suicide (1.9%). According to the organization Active Minds, suicide is a leading cause of death in college students.

This shift in mental health for individuals in Generation Z, those born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s, can be attributed to historical events since the turn of the century, Dr. Rostain said at the meeting, presented by Global Academy for Medical Education. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis of 2007-2008, school shootings, globalization leading to economic uncertainty, the 24-hour news cycle and continuous media exposure, and the influence of the Internet have all influenced Gen Z's identity.

"Growing up immersed in the Internet certainly has its advantages, but also maybe created some vulnerabilities in our young people," he said.

Concerns about climate change, the burden of higher education and student debt, and the COVID-19 pandemic also have contributed to anxiety in this group. In a spring survey of students published by Active Minds about COVID-19 and its impact on mental health, 91% of students reported having stress or anxiety, 81% were disappointed or sad, 80% said they felt lonely or isolated, 56% had relocated as a result of the pandemic, and 48% reported financial setbacks tied to COVID-19.

"Anxiety seems to have become a feature of modern life," said Dr. Rostain, who is director of education at the department of psychiatry and professor of psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

"Our culture, which often has a prominent emotional tone of fear, tends to promote cognitive distortions in which everyone is perceiving danger at every turn." The increase in anxiety pre-dated the pandemic and appears to be contributing to further mental health concerns in this group, he noted. While people should be washing their hands and staying safe through social distancing during the pandemic, "we don't want people to stop functioning, planning the future, and really in college students' case, studying and getting ready for their careers," he said. Parents can hinder those goals through intensively parenting or "overparenting" their children, which can result in destructive perfectionism, anxiety and depression, abject fear of failure and risk avoidance, and a focus on the external aspects of life rather than internal feelings.

Heavier alcohol use and amphetamine use also is on the rise in college students, Dr. Rostain said. Increased stimulant use in young adults is attributed to greater access to prescription drugs prior to college, greater prevalence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), peer pressure, and influence from marketing and media messaging, he said. Another important change is the rise of smartphones and the Internet, which might drive the need to be constantly connected and compete for attention.

Dr. Anthony L. Rostain

"This is the first generation who had constant access to the Internet. Smartphones in particular are everywhere, and we think this is another important factor in considering what might be happening to young people," Dr. Rostain said.

Developing problem-solving and conflict resolution skills, developing coping mechanisms, being able to regulate emotions, finding optimism toward the future, having access to mental health services, and having cultural or religious beliefs with a negative view of suicide are all protective factors that promote resiliency in young people, Dr. Rostain said. Other protective factors include the development of socio-emotional readiness skills, such as conscientiousness, self-management, interpersonal skills, self-control, task persistence, risk management, self-acceptance, and having an open mindset or seeking help when needed. However, he noted, family is one area that can be both a help or a risk to mental health.

"Family attachments and supportive relationships in the family are really critical in predicting good outcomes. By the same token, families that are conflicted, where there's a lot of stress or there's a lot of turmoil and/or where resources are not available, that may be a risk factor to coping in young adulthood," he said.

Individual resilience can be developed through learning from mistakes and overcoming mindset barriers, such as feelings of not belonging, concerns about disappointing one's parents, worries about not making it, or fears of being different.

On campus, best practices and emerging trends include wellness and resiliency programs, reducing stigma, engagement from students, training of faculty and staff, crisis management plans, telehealth counseling, substance abuse programs, postvention support after suicide, collaboration with mental health providers, and support for diverse populations.

"The best schools are the ones that promote communication and that invite families to be involved early on because parents and families can be and need to be educated about what to do to prevent adverse outcomes of young people who are really at risk," Dr. Rostain said. "It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes the same village to bring someone from adolescence to young adulthood."

Family-based intervention has also shown promise, he said, but clinicians should watch for signs that a family is not willing to undergo therapy, is scapegoating a college student, or there are signs of boundary violations, violence, or sexual abuse in the family – or attempts to undermine treatment.

Specific to COVID-19, campus mental health services should focus on routine, self-care, physical activity, and connections with other people while also space for grieving lost experiences, facing uncertainty, developing resilience, and finding meaning. In the family, challenges around COVID-19 can include issues of physical distancing and quarantine, anxiety about becoming infected with the virus, economic insecurity, managing conflicts, setting and enforcing boundaries in addition to providing mutual support, and finding new meaning during the pandemic.

"I think these are the challenges, but we think this whole process of people living together and handling life in a way they've never expected to may hold some silver linings," Dr. Rostain said. "It may be a way of addressing many issues that were never addressed before the young person went off to college."

Global Academy and this news organization are owned by the same parent company. Dr. Rostain reported receiving royalties from Routledge/Taylor Francis Group and St. Martin's Press, scientific advisory board honoraria from Arbor and Shire/Takeda, consulting fees from the National Football League and Tris Pharmaceuticals, and has presented CME sessions for American Psychiatric Publishing, Global Medical Education, Shire/Takeda, and the U.S. Psychiatric Congress.

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