A new research paper published in the Journal of Affective Disorders sheds light on the worsening mental health of college students nationwide and documents inequalities in mental health issues and treatment for college students of color. Trends in college student mental health and help-seeking by race/ethnicity: Findings from the national healthy minds study, 2013–2021 is based on data from the Healthy Minds Study and is the first multi-campus, national study to assess these trends in mental health and treatment utilization among racial/ethnic minority students over time.
The paper fills a considerable gap in knowledge that exists around mental health outcomes in diverse racial and ethnic college populations. Sarah K. Lipson, PhD, principal investigator for the Healthy Minds Study and lead author on the paper, credits the Healthy Minds Study’s large-scale dataset for providing a deeper understanding of the mental health landscape, particularly for identities that are rarely measured or often combined with other identities due to small sample sizes, such as Native American and Arab American students. “Data are one of our most powerful tools for advocacy and for advancing mental health equity in higher education,” she said.
“Our findings show that little progress has been made over the past decade — and indeed a worsening of inequalities has occurred — when it comes to the mental health ‘treatment gap’ for racial/ethnic minority students,” said Lipson.
The study demonstrates worsening mental health for all students over the study period, including increased prevalence of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation, and a 32.5% decrease in flourishing (measured using Diener’s Flourishing Scale). The researchers were also able to document the mental health impact of the pandemic, finding that prevalence of one or more mental health problems increased among all students from 58.0% in 2018–2019 to 60.2% in 2020–2021.
The paper also reveals large inequalities in mental health issues and treatment among racial/ethnic minorities. Prevalence of symptoms of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and “one or more mental health problems” increased most significantly among racial/ethnic minority students. American Indian/Alaskan Native students experienced the largest decreases in flourishing of any group as well as the largest increases in depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and “one or more mental health problems” from 2013 to 2021.
In the study, students of color had the lowest rates of mental health service utilization; The highest annual rate of past-year treatment for Asian, Black, and Latinx students was at or below the lowest rate for White students. “Our findings show that little progress has been made over the past decade — and indeed a worsening of inequalities has occurred — when it comes to the mental health ‘treatment gap’ for racial/ethnic minority students,” said Lipson. “For example, though Arab American students experienced a 22% increase in prevalence, there was an 18% decrease in past-year treatment among those students from 2013 to 2021.” According to the paper, this increasing treatment gap “suggests a lack of attention and resources devoted to serving these populations and their unique needs.”
Akilah Patterson, MPH, a co-author on the paper who is pursuing her doctoral degree at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, says it is urgently important for colleges and universities to understand and address the mental health needs of students of color because “they face unique challenges such as racial discrimination, fears of deportation while pursuing their education, financial stress, and at times do not feel like they belong on their campuses.” An understanding of their specific mental health needs is necessary to recognizing how to best support them when they face difficulties. “As a student of color who has felt at times that my campus didn’t understand my needs, I faced difficulty and was hesitant to seek help when I ran into roadblocks,” she said. “This study sheds light on the gaps that currently exist and indicates a nationwide need to address the mental health needs of students of color to support them as they complete their education.” Patterson notes the “history of not welcoming students of color in higher education spaces,” adding that this study indicates how little progress has been made over the past decade in addressing gaps in mental health outcomes. She concludes, “With today’s conversations related to equity and anti-racism, the time is now to address these trends and ensure they do not continue into the next decade for tomorrow’s college students of color.”