Student depression, anxiety soaring during pandemic, new survey finds

More than one-third of U.S. students surveyed by the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium screened for depression or anxiety, with numbers up sharply since a similar survey in spring 2019, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke via Pixabay)

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be driving dramatic increases in depression and anxiety among college students, with more than a third reporting significant mental health challenges, according to a new survey co-led by the University of California, Berkeley, Center for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE).

The survey of students at nine U.S. public research universities nationwide found that 35% of undergraduates and 32% of graduate and professional students screened positive for major depressive disorder, while 39% of all students screened positive for anxiety disorder, according to the report released today (Tuesday, Aug. 18) by the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium.

The prevalence of major depressive disorder has more than doubled, compared to a similar SERU study in spring 2019 that focused only on graduate and professional students. The number of students who screened positive for anxiety disorder in the new study was up by 50% compared to 2019.

The rate of anxiety and depression was more pronounced among low-income students, students of color, LGBTQ+ students and those who are caring for loved ones.

“As the pandemic continues, universities need to be prepared for a surge of student requests for mental health services in the fall and beyond,” said SERU Consortium Director Igor Chirikov, a senior researcher at CSHE. “Current plans to continue education with remote or hybrid instruction won’t be effective without adequate resources for mental health support programs.”

The SERU survey was conducted from May through July. Widespread social unrest over the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota began in late May, but didn’t cause a shift in the depression and anxiety rates measured by the survey. That leaves the COVID-19 pandemic as the strongest likely cause of the surge in mental health issues, Chirikov said.

The report includes a range of recommendations for university policy during the pandemic, including expanded counseling and therapeutic services, extensive communication about mental health and available services, and efforts to increase faculty and staff awareness of mental health challenges among students.

UC Berkeley offers a range of resources to its students, including online or phone counseling and help meeting basic needs, along with many COVID-19 support resources.

The SERU survey was a project of CSHE and the University of Minnesota. It covered 30,725 undergraduate students and 15,346 graduate and professional students and was conducted at nine public research universities in the U.S.