The State of Student Mental Health: 10 Interesting Facts

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Written By: J. Lasswell
January 4, 2023

Here are 10 facts that represent the current state of student mental health

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” — Carl Jung

If you’ve been paying attention to school safety news in the last decade, you’ve surely been introduced to the discussion surrounding the student mental health crisis. School shootings, declining test scores, and a general feeling of helplessness have tainted our idea of the K-12 school experience and have impacted the way burgeoning adults participate in furthering education, the workforce, and society. Unfortunately, the objective to advance the role of educators and increase the safety of students is constantly sidelined by  political spectacle, which serves nothing more than to divide decision-makers and prolong meaningful change. While the surface-level talking points of school safety are argued, nearly three-quarters of college students reported moderate or severe psychological distress and nearly half of high school students felt prolonged depression during the previous year. The consequence of a student body entrenched with poor mental health poses a risk to safety, academics and the entire school experience.

As partaking in therapy and addressing mental health as a non-taboo has become normalized, it is difficult to assess our current state of student mental health when compared to years previous; have students always been in a mental slump and we are just now aware or are novel social pressures creating more mental sickness (maybe a little column A, column B?) Perhaps by analyzing the objective information surrounding student mental health, the root of these issues will reveal themselves as either a modern scourge or an inescapable facet of life. Here are 10 student mental health facts that we feel provide a sufficient overlook of our current situation:

While the facts vary between college and high school-specific, we found the trend between both demographics to be similar, if not the same, and their closeness in age to be relevant. 

1. Depression is rising amongst students

Depression is the poster child of mental health disorders, as it’s a compound of conditions that most people are familiar with. Fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, or even recurring thoughts of death are experienced by all throughout life, but the concentration of this disorder seems to be particularly acute in students.  

A study analyzing student wellness from 2007-2017 demonstrated that mental health diagnoses have risen from 22% to 36% among college students. 

A separate study that analyzed over 700,000 students showed that depression accounted for most of the diagnoses at 39%, followed by anxiety at 36%.

2. More students are seeking help, but it’s a drop in the bucket

Utilizing therapy to address mental health has come a long way from the stigma of shame that persisted into the 2000s. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of students seeking help at campus counseling centers increased by almost 40% and continued to rise until the COVID pandemic began. Nowadays, most people are aware of the benefits of seeking help from a professional, but finding time outside of a busy schedule, payment, and lack of access still makes it difficult for students to seek help - in fact, 75% of students that struggle with depression don’t seek help. While this may not be concerning to some, another report found that half of the students that dropped out of college due to poor mental health did so without previously accessing campus mental health services, demonstrating how critically important utilizing mental health services at your disposal can be. 

3. Poor mental health is reported higher amongst marginalized groups

One of the most apparent intersects in the scope of student mental health is gender and sexuality. Students that are already dealing with the mental toil of being at their most vulnerable age are compounded by the social struggles and discrimination that exist amongst these groups. In fact, LGBTQ+ high school students accounted for more than double their heterosexual counterparts in reporting poor mental health. Unfortunately for women, their relationship with poor mental health is similar: roughly 49% of high school girls reported poor mental health, while their male counterparts reported 25% - nearly half as much. 

4. Half of students don’t have access to free mental health assessments

Assessing mental health is a critical point in the process of providing wellness resources to students - presumably, all schools would provide this basic service. Unfortunately, only 55% of schools nationwide provide free mental health assessments. This can be attributed to a lack of funding or professional resources in rural areas.

5. Treating Mental health is more difficult in rural areas

As is the case in most facets of school safety, schools in rural areas are disadvantaged. Because of their lack of professional resources, schools with smaller enrollment tend to have fewer mental health services. 71% of schools with at least 1,000 students offered mental health assessments whereas 43% of schools with less than 300 students had them. This 28% difference paints a picture of the overall disadvantage rural schools have when it comes to the wellness of their students. 

6. Students are feeling overwhelmed

No matter what your position on student mental health is, everyone can agree the one thing all students experience is the feeling of being “overwhelmed.” In the last 20 years, the technological boom has not only increased our efficiency, but also the expectations of what students and employees should be outputting. This increase is felt most acutely by college students, as they are often in the position of being both a student and an employee. In 2019, 85% of college students surveyed said they felt overwhelmed with their workload and 39% reported depression that was so severe they couldn’t function. 

7. Schools are limited in treating mental health

In 2019, The School Survey on Crime and Safety asked schools to identify what factors were limiting them from providing mental health services to students. The study found that the most pressing hindrance was inadequate funding (54%) or a lack of access to licensed mental health professionals (40%). As it is with most aspects of education, receiving funding for programs, improvements or renovations is a process that requires approval on multiple levels, making the process long and meticulous. Funding aside, we‘re beginning to face a shortage of mental health professionals, as more than 150 million people live in federally designated mental health professional shortage areas. We are expected to be lacking up to 31,000 mental health professionals within a few years

8. Poor mental health is the main contributor to college dropouts

A National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) survey found that 64% of students who had dropped out of college contributed poor mental health as the reason for leaving. A more recent study found that of the students that dropped out of college for mental health reasons, 51% did so during their freshman year. It’s becoming clear that mental illness is the great gateway that separates high school graduates from college graduates; certainly, this is age group (≈18-20) is at a crucial point, and a lack of addressing their mental health can negatively impact the rest of their lives. 

9. Suicidal thoughts are highest amongst students ages

The most damaging outcome of mental health unchecked is the loss of life, particularly suicide. Ages 18-24 are at a crucial point in this regard, as they have the highest likelihood of having seriously considered suicide than any other adult age group (25.5%). 

A 2018 Harvard Medical Study found 20% of college students had considered suicide that year, and a 2019 study found 19% of high school students had considered the same. 

10. Ancillary behaviors are tied to student mental health

Outside of the obvious implications of having prolonged mental health issues, there are other harmful behaviors that arise from living a lifestyle marred with stress and struggle: 25% of female college students binge and purge to avoid gaining weight; up to 35% of college students engage in self-harm; between 2007-2017 drug-related deaths increased by 108% among adults ages 18-34 and alcohol-related deaths increased by 69%. It's clear that student mental health is a multifaceted dilemma that intersects drug and alcohol abuse and other harmful behaviors.

As students transition into adulthood, abrupt life changes and academic stress can make them vulnerable to poor mental health, particularly students in marginalized groups. The startling statistics can be attributed to the advances we’ve made in identifying and addressing mental health issues, but they also show a deficit of mental health resources in rural public schools. A key factor in promoting wellness in American schools will be a sharp focus on providing free mental health assessments to rural communities - as the data implies, students are willing to seek help if it’s provided.

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