Science Summary

Center for Collegiate Mental Health Annual Report

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University released its 2020 annual report summarizing the state of college student mental health from counseling centers. Key findings from the report note that anxiety and depression continue to be the most common presenting concerns assessed by clinicians at counseling centers, but their rate of growth appears to be slowing. The report also shows that the rate of students who report having prior counseling continues to increase, with approximately 60% of students seeking services at counseling centers now reporting they have had prior mental health treatment. Additionally, 65% percent of students who sought services at counseling centers said the pandemic has led to some mental health challenges, and 61% said it affected their “motivation and focus.” Sixty percent said the pandemic has caused “loneliness or isolation,” and 59% said it has negatively affected their academics. Key findings center around case-load index, or CLI, a metric released by the CCMH in 2019 that was designed to provide an accurate and comparable metric describing the landscape of staffing levels. The findings demonstrate that counseling centers with a low case-load index are more likely to be at smaller institutions, and provide full-length assessments at the initiation of services. These centers are less likely to have capacity issues during periods of high demand, and produce more improvement in mental health symptoms. Counseling centers with high CLI were found to be at larger institutions and those with limited access to weekly individual therapy. High CLI centers are more likely to use case management and referrals to external services, and produce a smaller improvement in symptoms.

Learning Disabilities and Dropout Rates

A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology found that college students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have significantly poorer mental health, lower GPAs, report less frequent use of study skills strategies than their peers without ADHD. Concerningly, students with ADHD are more likely to drop out of school. Variables that predicted better outcomes included parental education, fewer depressive symptoms, receipt of high school accommodations, and college academic support. The report states that the findings suggest that academic support should begin in high school and continue throughout college, and focus on executive functioning skills. George DuPaul, a co-author of the article, professor of school psychology and associate dean for research at Lehigh University’s College of Education, told Inside Higher Ed that students with ADHD “require academic support prior to and throughout their college years.”

Diminished Mental Health Amid the Pandemic and Effects of Virtual Learning

Many recent studies have demonstrated diminished mental health among college students and young adults generally during the pandemic. A study published by PLOS ONE examined the myriad psychological impacts COVID-19 has had on college students, and evaluated sociodemographic or lifestyle-related risk factors for experiencing impacts. The data, culled from a survey of more than 2,500 students from seven public universities in the US, showed that women, Asian, students under age 25, those in poor health, those who knew somebody with COVID-19, and lower-income students were at higher risk for feeling highly distressed. Spending eight or more hours in front of a computer, smartphone or television screen also increased risk. Those who reported low levels of distress were more likely to be White, above-average social class, and spend two or more hours outdoors. According to several recent studies, students who attended classes in-person reported lower rates of mental health challenges. A new study from Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and NBC News, shows that high school students who had spent at least some time in the classroom reported slightly lower rates of stress and worry than their peers whose classes have been exclusively online. A February study conducted by Hobsons and Hanover Research showed that college students enrolled in online and hybrid learning reported mental health struggles at a higher rate than did in-person students. Students also reported decreased focus and engagement. Recent research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston University’s School of Social Work, and McLean Hospital, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, also reveals that students who were mandated to relocate off campus during the spring of 2020 were more likely to report COVID-19-related grief, loneliness, and generalized anxiety symptoms than students who did not.

Food Insecurity at Urban Universities

Food Insecurity at Urban Universities: Perspectives During the COVID-19 Pandemic, published by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU), examines the pandemic’s impact on food insecurity for college students, approaches used to mitigate it, innovations to be explored, and the relationship between systemic racism and food insecurity. The data revealed that students cut back on personal necessities to address food insecurity, eat less than they should because they lack sufficient food or money, or eat foods that lack nutritional value because they could not afford to eat balanced meals. Students also expressed stigma around using a food pantry, or report that the food in the panty is low quality. Institutional leaders in the study outlined nine targeted actions university leaders can take such as “increasing awareness, calling out systemic inequities, creating a culture of care, collaborating with the community, integrating other basic needs and advocating for change.”

The Impact of Gender-Based Violence

A recent report released by Know Your IX, an advocacy group dedicated to informing students about their right to an education free from gender-based violence, showed the grave impacts that sexual violence can have on students’ ability to participate in higher education. In a survey of more than 100 student survivors who formally reported violence to their schools, 39% experienced a substantial disruption in their educations. The study found that 27% of survivors who reported took a leave of absence, 20% transferred schools, and nearly 10% dropped out of school entirely. According to the report, these educational interruptions occurred “due to sexual violence exacerbated by schools’ inadequate or otherwise harmful responses to reports of violence.” In fact, 35% of those surveyed reported that their schools explicitly encouraged them to take time off. And 15% who reported to their schools were threatened with or faced punishment for coming forward. Survivors also reported mental health effects. More than 40% disclosed that they suffered from PTSD, and more than one third reported experiencing anxiety. Know Your IX recommends supporting survivors at both the federal and campus level.


Other Research:

  • A new study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found smartphone addiction to be linked to poor sleep. Researchers observed smartphone use among 1,043 students between the ages of 18 and 30. Nearly 40% of the university students qualified as “addicted” to smartphones, and students who reported high use of cellphones also reported poor sleep quality.
  • A January working paper published by Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis shows that increases in hate crime reports at the state level is linked to increases in enrollment of Black, first-time college students at HBCUs by 20%.
  • Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the share of U.S. adults aged 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree jumped nearly 17% over a 15-year period up to 2019, though equity gaps persist.


Previous Article Next Article