Mental Health Monday: Increased Anxiety In Students

What to look for, when to seek help, and what schools can do to support their students’ mental health.

Anxiety is a common and sometimes helpful tool that can help students stay motivated, prepared, and alert. For example, when students are preparing to take tests, a certain level of anxiety can be helpful in order to get tasks accomplished. However, when that feeling of anxiety becomes debilitating and stops them from accomplishing their tasks, generalized anxiety could be to blame. It is important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in increased uncertainty, loneliness, stress, and worsening of generalized anxiety for the student population.    

Per the CDC, in 2019 (prior to the pandemic) 9.5%, 3.4%, and 2.7% of adults have experienced mild, moderate, or severe symptoms of anxiety in the past 2 weeks, respectively. Most adults who experienced mild, moderate, or severe symptoms were between the ages of 18-29.  Women were more likely to experience mild, moderate, or severe symptoms of anxiety than men.   

The Problem: 

Once anxiety becomes overwhelming and unmanageable it is referred to as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD can be described as a feeling of excessive worry that is associated with restlessness, irritability, muscle tension, or difficulty concentrating.  

Student Barriers: 

We already know that students are facing worsening anxiety due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, students often delay seeking care, citing lack of access to care, the stigma associated with mental health conditions, and the lack of understanding of the condition. Students often self-medicate with increased alcohol consumption, drug use, or self-isolation which can only worsen GAD. 

For Students: 

Seek help when you need it. Some signs that you may benefit from support are when: 

  • You are experiencing feelings of hopelessness.
  • Your anxiety is causing you to feel physically ill. 
  • Your anxiety is impacting your grades.
  • You are sleeping more than usual and feel a lack of energy to get your day started.
  • You have a decreased appetite.

For Schools: 

  • Train your staff to recognize when students may be displaying signs of worsening anxiety.
  • Improve access to care for students.
  • Increase focus on student wellbeing.

Student Mental Health and COVID-19

Due to the long-lasting pandemic that has led to stay-at-home orders, lockdowns, and social distancing, COVID-19 has had a disastrous impact on the mental health of college students. During this time, students have been feeling isolated which has led to an increase in their stress, anxiety, and depression. Many schools have shifted to online learning, and, for some students, this less interactive form of learning has increased that feeling of isolation and its adverse effects.

During increased levels of stress, students may have thoughts of hurting themselves and thoughts of suicide. Due to the lack of access to care, students may put off seeking help when amid a mental health crisis. That is why it is important for school officials, family members, and peers to look for warning signs to make sure that those who need support receive it. Some common warning signs to be aware of are:

  • Isolation from friends
  • Expression of feelings of tiredness or sleepiness more often than normal
  • Drug and/or alcohol use that is more than normal
  • Increased mood swings

It’s also important that students recognize the warning signs in themselves. Students should be aware of these common signs of chronic stress, anxiety, and depression:

  • Feeling like a burden
  • Being isolated
  • Increased anxiety
  • Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Increased substance use
  • Looking for a way to access lethal means
  • Increased anger or rage
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Expressing hopelessness
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Thoughts of self-harm
  • Making plans for suicide

If you or someone you know is struggling to cope and need immediate assistance you should call 911, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1800273TALK), or call/text the Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990).

Questions for Higher Ed Leaders:

  • Are schools ready to take care of their student population knowing the increased mental health crisis facing them?
  • How will schools lead the next generation of students to better health and a better life?

The college campus will never be the same again, and old solutions will not solve new problems. Higher education has a responsibility to its students to provide them the mental health resources that they need.