US College Students Facing Pandemic-Related Financial Stress, Racism, and Less Access to Mental-Health Care

By Rob Goodier

November 11, 2020

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Two-thirds of college students report more financial stress as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and nearly the same proportion says mental-health care is harder to access, according to a survey of a representative sample of college students on 14 U.S. campuses.

Also, three-quarters of the more than 18,000 respondents said they have witnessed pandemic-related discrimination against Asians and Pacific Islanders, researchers reported October 28 at the virtual annual meeting of the American Public Health Association.

"I think normalizing this to patients that this is a challenging time and the experience of symptoms is common and it's okay to ask for help - that will get more of these students support," Dr. Sasha Zhou of Wayne State University in Detroit, who worked on the study, told Reuters Health by phone.

Her advice to colleges is to be transparent about COVID-19 transmission and also about the landscape of mental health issues and services available.

The data are the result of a set of COVID-19 survey questions developed by the Health Minds Network and the National College Health Association, sent to a random sample of 20,000 students in March through May.

More than a quarter (26.4%) of respondents said the pandemic had made their financial situation a lot more stressful, and 39.6% said it had become somewhat more stressful.

At the same time, students may have a harder time using mental-health care services, as 23.3% said access was much more difficult, and 36.8% said it is somewhat more difficult.

Since the pandemic began, Asians and Pacific Islanders appear to have been targeted for racial discrimination and hostility on campuses.

"Discrimination rates have increased significantly against Asian/Pacific-Islanders," Dr. Zhou said, adding that the rhetoric of the Trump administration is feeding the problem.

Nearly 6% of survey respondents said they experienced discriminatory or hostile behavior due to their race, and 73% of those who did identified as Asian or Pacific Islander. Forty-one percent of respondents said they witnessed racial discrimination or hostile behavior towards others, and 93% of those who did believed that the victim identified as Asian or Pacific Islander.

The findings suggest the pandemic may have exacerbated mental-health problems that were already rising. Healthy Minds Network surveys from previous years show a rise in major depression among students from 8% in 2007 to 18% in 2019. Likewise, suicidal ideation rose from 6% in 2007 to 14% in 2019, and anxiety rose from 17% in 2013 to 31% in 2019.

When schools locked down and went online in response to the pandemic, there was a general awareness of the stress the situation placed on students, said Dr. Lindsay Stark, associate professor of social work and public health at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who was not involved in the study.

"Despite the reality that professors, counselors, and other support staff may also be struggling with their own mental health and wellbeing, I do think student mental health remains a key area of focus for most higher education institutions as the pandemic continues," Dr. Stark told Reuters Health by email.

SOURCE: APHA 2020, presented October 28, 2020.