12/16/2014 05:41 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

National Survey Finds Troubling, Persistent Mental and Emotional Health Issues among College Students

This entry was co-authored by Lesley McBain and Joseph Ramirez.

Many college students have either just completed the fall term or, as is the case at UCLA, are spending this last week of the semester or quarter preparing for and taking final exams. Walking through libraries, coffee houses, and classrooms, it becomes quite evident the level of stress and anxiety experienced around this time of year. Although feelings of stress may spike in the middle and end of each term when students are preparing for and taking exams, anxiety and concerns about students' emotional well-being persist throughout the academic year, and research suggests that these issues are increasing among college students.

Four years ago, the lead story in the national report from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program's (CIRP) 2010 Freshman Survey highlighted that the 2010 incoming freshman class had the lowest level of self-reported emotional health in the 25-year history of the item. For the cohort of first-time, full-time students who began college in the fall of 2010, just over half (51.9 percent) rated their emotional health as "above average" or in the "highest 10 percent." The report also identified a substantial gender gap, with 59.1 percent percent of men rating their emotional health as "above average" or in the "highest 10 percent" compared to just 45.9 percent of women.

In a report released Monday, December 15, CIRP highlighted findings from its 2014 College Senior Survey, which followed up with many of these same students who had entered college in 2010. Findings suggest that feelings of being overwhelmed and low levels of self-reported emotional health persisted throughout college. Nearly half (46.1 percent) of female graduating seniors indicated that they "frequently" felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in their last year of college compared to just over one-quarter (26.8 percent) of men.

The report also found that more than half of men (53.6 percent) and three-fifths of women (61.0 percent) felt depressed either "occasionally" or "frequently" during their final year of college. Overall, about 1 in 10 seniors reported that they "frequently" felt depressed (11.4 percent of women and 9.6 percent of men) during their senior year.

The percentage of graduating seniors in this sample who report feeling overwhelmed and depressed underscores some of the emotional health issues confronting students throughout their college years. Indeed, students who arrive at college with lower levels of self-reported emotional health appear unlikely to make gains in this area while in college. Less than one in five students who rated their incoming (2010) emotional health as "below average" or in the "lowest 10 percent" placed their emotional health as graduating seniors in the "above average" or "highest 10 percent" categories. Understanding specific issues students face can help pinpoint campus-level changes to support and promote students' emotional and personal well-being.

Students who report low levels of emotional health while in college struggle to make stronger connections to the institution. Those with lower levels of self-rated emotional health are less likely to feel valued at the institution and are less likely to experience a sense of belonging on campus. Furthermore, students who arrive on campus with emotional health challenges are less likely to persist.

As institutions have increased the availability of counseling staff and resources in response to growing student mental health needs, they have also worked to ensure students connect with campus resources and support services. One way to assess whether students are accessing resources is through the frequency with which students seek personal counseling. Among all graduating students in the sample, 29.9 percent of men and 36.6 percent of women sought personal counseling during their senior year. Among those students who reported feeling "frequently" depressed in their senior year, a greater percentage sought personal counseling, with 54.7 percent of men and 69.2 percent of women having done so. Thus, it is important for campuses to recognize that not only do male students seek counseling at lower rates than their female peers, men who "frequently" feel depressed are even less likely to seek counseling.

The primary challenge for many counseling and psychological services offices on campuses continues to be one of resources. Although nearly one-quarter (24.6 percent) of offices in a survey of counseling center directors reported an increase of funding for the 2012-13 academic year, more than half (53.2 percent) had no funding change and 22.2 percent experienced budget reductions. Indeed, college counseling centers across the U.S. are experiencing greater demands for their services but finding themselves with inadequate resources to meet those demands, sometimes running wait lists for appointments or referring students to off-campus providers.

It seems clear that the stress and anxiety that students bring with them to college persist and perhaps even compound while in college, and institutions have an obligation to provide support and resources to these students. As colleges and universities receive greater pressure to move students through degree programs and demonstrate their ability to meet arbitrary, outcomes-focused accountability metrics proposed by state and federal legislatures, let's hope they do not lose sight of the individual students who make up each of those statistics.