Photo by Andrik Langfield
The psychological effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are severe, and underestimating them may be disastrous for our college campuses.In a Pew survey conducted in late March, 18% of adult respondents reported feeling nervous most or all of the time. In a survey conducted in 2018, only 9% of adults reported the same feeling. Respondents aged 18–29 reported most psychological distress: 33% and 28% had experienced high and medium levels of distress respectively. In a separate study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of adults reported that the pandemic had affected their mental health, with 19% reporting a “major impact.”
These feelings of anxiety and fear—which stem from constant health worries, high levels of unemployment and widespread social isolation—have taken hold at an especially inopportune time for young people, especially those at college. The prevalence of mental illness among adolescents—and especially among college-aged individuals—has been rising. Counseling centers at many institutions of higher education are criminally understaffed and underfunded. To make matters worse, schools are likely to freeze hiring and reallocate valuable resources to account for the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
When students return to campus, these grim developments may combine to form an unprecedented perfect storm.
Studies published in 2019 and 2018 have shown that rates of major depressive disorder, depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and suicide-related deaths have been rising significantly among individuals between the ages of 12 and 25, with especially among those aged 18–25. Debate on the potential causes of these trends has been contentious: researchers have not yet come to a concrete conclusion. Widespread use of social media and heavy smartphone use are the most popular hypotheses.
Research on mental illness in college students reveals the same trends. One analysis, which utilized two massive national datasets (the National College Health Assessment and the Healthy Minds Study), showed sizable increases in rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. These rates are almost guaranteed to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, studies show that social isolation, one of the defining characteristics of the outbreak, is associated with an increased risk of depressive symptoms, suicide attempts and low self-esteem.
The new life stressors brought on by the pandemic may also affect psychological wellbeing. College students will be among the most vulnerable to the enormous job losses likely to occur following the outbreak. Many students have already lost valuable on-campus work-study jobs, and students make up a considerable proportion of service workers, who have been brutally affected by social distancing measures. Job insecurity can lead to food and housing insecurity, especially for students living in low-income households, who may be responsible for supporting their immediate families. These issues can cause even more despair and mental distress. I know this all too well from my own work with students.
Given the unfortunate pre-pandemic trends, it is no surprise that a report published by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health showed that visits to campus counseling centers increased by 30% between 2009 and 2015. (These years overlap with those of the studies referenced above). In a survey conducted this year by Inside Higher Ed, 76% of student affairs leaders at public institutions and 81% of those at private schools reported that visits to campus mental health professionals have “increased a lot.”
However, colleges have not responded to the increased demand by expanding the mental health resources offered on their campuses. In fact, counseling centers at many institutions are booked to capacity, and have had to turn students away or leave them on waiting lists for weeks at a time. Although it is common practice for centers to see students deemed suicidal or in immediate danger right away, this is not true for students suffering from depression, anxiety and other issues.
Institutions have failed to hire more licensed mental health counselors because they lack the finances. This is certainly not a reflection of their concerns, nor is it a matter of misplaced priorities. NASPA’s 2019 Vice President for Student Affairs Census indicated “mental health issues” as the primary area of concern for institutional leaders. In a survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed early this year, 93% of student affairs administrators at public institutions and 96% of those at private schools reported spending a significant amount of time dealing with student mental health concerns. The sad reality is that schools low on resources and funding, particularly smaller, private, tuition-driven institutions, may not have the money to grow their cadre of clinical counselors (whose salaries average well over $50,000) beyond the typical counselor-to-student ratio of 1:1,600.
Given the pandemic’s swift destruction of the global economy, institutions have been forced to tighten their budgets even more. Given the current financial uncertainties, institutions are rationing their funds. How long will the pandemic last? Will application and enrollment numbers drop? Will state funding decline? As there is no way to answer these questions for certain, strategies like hiring freezes are the most logical financial option. Curtail resources now: avoid mass layoffs later.
These developments will make hiring additional mental health counselors, who will be desperately needed in the aftermath of the pandemic, more difficult or even impossible at all but the wealthiest schools. Institutions will be more overwhelmed than they already are, unable to handle the amplified need for mental health services.
When the pandemic is over, schools will understandably focus on financial concerns. But it is imperative for institutional leaders to keep mental health concerns at the forefront of their discussions and decisions. We must allocate funds to hiring more mental health professionals. Our students will need it.
Without a doubt, the pandemic will intensify the recent rise in mental health issues among college students, even after the outbreak has come to an end. Students won’t recover from the effects of social isolation overnight, nor will they miraculously regain their lost jobs as soon as social distancing measures have been lifted. They will need mental health counseling, and campus counseling centers will be slammed. If institutions do not account for this as they reallocate their funds, they may be unable to respond to what could be the biggest mental health crisis their campuses have ever seen.