A Rocky Return to Campus: College Student Mental Health Equity during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Mental health is critical to all peoples’ well-being and ability to thrive. For college students, it can be even more crucial, often determining students’ educational and life outcomes. The barrage of major life transitions, new responsibilities, and demands of juggling competing priorities push students’ mental and emotional well-being to the forefront of their every endeavor.

For students with good mental health, academic achievement, supportive relationships with peers, and good physical health are often within reach. They more likely have higher GPAs, fewer gaps in enrollment, and higher graduation rates. After college, the cascading positive effects of improved life opportunities in turn benefit their work life, wealth, access to housing, safety, social health, and physical thriving. 

COVID-19 Impacts

Since the onset of COVID-19, college students across the U.S. have grappled with massive disruptions to their education and, as a result, a nationwide decline in student mental health. The pandemic and its impacts have led to many students feeling that planning their future is impossible. The majority of Gen Z adults in college reported that their education (87%) and uncertainty about how the school year would be (82%) were significant sources of stress. Students and instructors alike faced barriers such as quiet spaces to work, childcare, and reliable access to the internet and technological devices. Other top concerns include anxiety about the lack of productivity, finances, and future job offers.

In addition to educational stressors, many students have struggled with loneliness and isolation--about two-thirds according to a Healthy Minds survey. Observers have noted declining mental well-being among college students, with increased stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness related to the threat of COVID-19 and changes in daily life. Impacts have been most severe for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students.

BIPOC Students

Disproportionately affected by difficulties with housing, access to health care, high-risk work settings, and forced to adapt to rapid changes in their academic, occupational, housing, and social situations, BIPOC students have experienced the brunt of impacts. The sudden return to home environments during the 2019-2020 academic year introduced or exacerbated mental health challenges for these students, along with the overwhelming and unequal burden of finances, illness, and death. On top of this, many were feeling the effects of increased visibility of systemic racism, negative biases, and hate-fueled crimes due to the pandemic.

In 2020, anti-Asian and Pacific Islander hate crimes increased 145 percent across the sixteen cities studied in the United States According to a research brief from the California School Boards Association. Across all demographics, Asian American families were the most hesitant to send their children back to school in-person, citing fears of racial harassment, bullying, along with doubt regarding COVID safety measures.

LGBTQ+ Students

Many LGBTQ+ students face existing challenges such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, suicidality, sexual assault and harassment, substance abuse, and stigma from their campus community. The pandemic has exacerbated conditions for LGBTQ+ students even further. For example, campus closures meant losing access to key resources such as student housing, health insurance, and social support. For many, this translates to unmet mental and physical health needs, sudden social isolation, and vulnerability to insecure and unsafe living conditions. LGBTQ+ students were two and a half times more likely to have lost housing from campus closures, as many rely on student housing due to a lack of acceptance in family housing situations. For those who were able to move back home during the pandemic, roughly half reported not being “out” to their families, leading to other sources of stress and anxiety. Throughout COVID-19, mental health concerns have been exacerbated for the LGBTQ+ community due to trauma from these issues.

Despite having disproportionate needs, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students are more likely to experience barriers to accessing mental health services. For BIPOC students, these may include difference in health beliefs, stigma related to accessing mental health care services as a person of color, limited access to culturally-competent professionals, or discrimination from mental health services. Likewise, LGBTQ+ students face barriers to competent mental health services, including stigma and shame, inability to afford services, inability to obtain parental permission for services, gender-affirming care, mistrust, and confidentiality issues.

Campuses Where Students Thrive

Prior to the pandemic, more than one in three college students reported struggling with depression, and the number of students entering college with existing mental health needs was already on the rise; counseling centers struggled to meet demands. Now, as we return to campus, we face the sobering reality that more students are in greater need of support, yet cutbacks have reduced counseling staff numbers on many campuses. In the words of one administrator we interviewed for the Campus Well-being Guide, “We have a problem we can’t counsel our way out of.” We are in need of systems transformation and culture change to fundamentally shift conditions to promote thriving and equity. 

The Campus Well-being Guide offers a framework by which colleges and universities can get started in co-creating a campus where all students, faculty, and staff can thrive. At the center of this work is a critical need to address inequities, discrimination and exclusion, and create new legacies of dignity and inclusion across our campuses through equity-driven approaches. Such approaches will address stigma and root causes of stress and mental health problems, such as campus and social climate, improve access to mental health services at all levels of intensity, and reduce access to means of suicide, with tailored strategies that respond to the varied needs of groups experiencing inequities. Some of the most important ways that schools and leadership can promote and support student mental health during and after the pandemic include increased academic support, focus on soft skills, more opportunities for social interactions, and engagement in long-term planning.

COVID-19 shined a light on the already imbalanced landscape of college student mental health, highlighting deep divides and exacerbating institutional short-comings, but it also generated the necessary momentum for equitable, student-centered solution building. 

Explore the resources below and join us in co-creating campuses that support mental health and well-being for all students.

Campus Well-Being Guide

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Campus Well Being Guide
Tool - Toolkit/toolbox
Brought to you by Community Commons
Banner graphic reads Campus Well-Being" with a photo of two Black college students walking and talking." style="margin: 0 auto;">
Campus Well-Being Resource Library
Brought to you by Community Commons
three students sitting at a counter while working on computer
Using Dialogue to Grow Campus Well-Being
Story - Original
Brought to you by Community Commons

More Resources

Screen grab of A Resource: Impacts of COVID-19 on First-Generation Students Experienced Across Institutions of Higher Education
A Resource: Impacts of COVID-19 on First-Generation Students Experienced Across Institutions of Higher Education
Resource - Blog
Brought to you by Center for First-generation Student Success
First page of Impact of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of College Students
Impact of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of College Students
Resource - Journal Article
Published on 06/08/2021
Cover page of report
Mental Health, Higher Education, and COVID-19: Strategies for Leaders to Support Campus Well-being
Resource - Report
Brought to you by American Council on Education
Published on 04/08/2020
Screen capture of The Impact of COVID-19 on Student Mental Health web page
The Impact of COVID-19 on Student Mental Health
Brought to you by Active Minds
Community Commons interns at the zoo
To Improve Student Health and Well-Being Focus on Mental Health
Story - Original
Brought to you by Community Commons
Cover of The Healthy Minds Study Fall 2020 Data Report
The Healthy Minds Study Fall 2020 Data Report
Resource - Report
Brought to you by Healthy Minds Network
Published on 02/01/2021
Infographic describing common causes of stress among college students
Student Stress and Mental Health
Story - Original
Brought to you by Community Commons
Published on 11/19/2019

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