As the pandemic disrupted collegiate life, mental-health experts feared a worsening crisis. Some worried that counseling centers would be overwhelmed by demand, leading to longer wait times and less effective treatment for students who were struggling and at risk of dropping out.
But early data from campus counseling centers challenge the idea that colleges are on the brink of a mental-health disaster.
Among the data from 144 responding institutions:
29% decrease in students seeking services
22% decrease in appointments
57% reported an increase in student anxiety, comparing the first four weeks of fall 2020 to fall 2019
81% reported an increase in student loneliness
36% reported an increase in student bereavement/grief and 40% reported an increase in depression
23% of students sought counseling for Covid-19 related reasons
The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors recently surveyed 144 colleges, asking them to compare the first four weeks of this semester with the first four weeks of fall 2019. The survey found a 29-percent decrease in the number of students seeking counseling services.
Sharon Mitchell, senior director of counseling, health, and wellness at the University at Buffalo and president of the association, cautioned that the data reflect a snapshot in time, and that the survey didn’t dig into the reasons for the decrease.
It’s clear that some students are struggling with their mental health during a challenging semester. The majority of counseling directors (81 percent) reported increased student loneliness, and more than half (57 percent) reported higher student anxiety. Fewer said that grief and depression had risen.
But the data stand in contrast to several other surveys this year suggesting that rising distress could lead to a flood of students needing therapy.
One of the most alarming statistics came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that one-fourth of 18- to 24-year-olds — the traditional age group of undergraduates — considered suicide in the previous 30 days. College presidents took note: Fifty-three percent ranked student mental health as a top concern in a recent poll by the American Council on Education.
Mitchell offered a couple of theories about the apparent decline in demand for college counseling: Students taking classes at home might be accessing mental-health services locally and not on campus. Many college therapists can’t see students who are learning remotely out of state due to licensing restrictions.
And, Mitchell said, some students might be feeling less stressed because they’re surrounded by a support network of family members.
Often, it’s being away from home that’s difficult for students, said Will Meek, director of counseling and psychological services at Brown University. For many students learning remotely this semester, Meek said his sense is that “they’re actually doing just fine — some of them better than when they’re on campus.”
Several counseling-center directors said their institutional figures line up with the national decrease in students seeking mental-health services. That’s the case at Pennsylvania State University, which Ben Locke, director of counseling and psychological services, attributes to the fact that fewer students are living on campus.
Locke is also executive director of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, which collects data nationally on students who seek counseling. The center’s data from the spring semester, he said, indicated that students weren’t especially anxious and depressed in the first months of the pandemic.
The center looked at average levels of distress for students seeking their first therapy appointments, comparing the figures from March to May 2020 to the same period in 2019. They found that, on most counts, student distress was about the same this past spring semester as it was the year before, despite the onset of Covid-19.
Not all colleges have seen a drop-off in student demand for services. At Texas Christian University, there’s been a 52-percent increase compared to last year, said Eric Wood, director of the counseling and mental-health center. Calls to the university’s 24/7 crisis line nearly doubled in September, compared to September 2019, Wood wrote in an email.
Wood believes that TCU’s hybrid counseling model — with some in-person services — might be more inviting for students than the centers that are operating entirely virtually, with all therapy taking place over Zoom. TCU students can still drop in to the physical location if they’re looking for help.
Even though the national data don’t necessarily paint a picture of a full-blown mental-health crisis, that doesn’t mean colleges should stop prioritizing student well-being and making sure services are accessible, campus officials said.
At Brown, Meek said he’s been getting more calls from parents and friends who are worried about certain students. And some students are coming to the counseling center in a worse emotional state than usual.
In a typical semester, students interact with their friends, their resident advisers, and their professors in person. When something’s wrong, Meek said, there are often early warning signs. In Zoom classes, it’s easier for distressed students to hide.
Some students are really struggling, Locke said. He drew a distinction between those who might have to deal with relatively minor inconveniences, like quarantining for a few days if they are exposed to the virus, and students who are stuck at home in an abusive environment.
When crises like the pandemic occur, research shows there’s often a delay in mental-health issues surfacing, as people focus on immediate needs, he added. He said his center would do a thorough analysis of fall data after the semester has ended.
Some students will face mental-health challenges due to the effects of Covid-19, Locke said, but “those won’t be fully understood until the pandemic begins to clear.”
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