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New Research Shows Increasing Depression on College Campuses

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College is typically one of the most exciting times in a young person’s life—and also one of the most stressful. Positive experiences of connection, learning, and independence are counterbalanced by academic and social pressures, coupled with the challenges of being away from home for the first time. That’s why college mental health services have been overwhelmed with demand in recent years. But with the addition of COVID-related stressors, rates of anxiety and depression on college campuses have increased even more dramatically.

Moreover, college depression rates have gone up not only on campuses, where students are enrolled in both remote and in-person classes, but also for students living at home while attending virtual courses.

How Many College Students Have Depression?

Perhaps the most startling college depression statistics come from a survey of 45,000 college students conducted at nine public research universities in 2020, including both undergraduate and graduate students. The results showed that more than one-third of college students are suffering from major depression or anxiety disorder. These college depression rates are twice as high as in 2019, and the anxiety rates are 1.5 times higher. 

Specifically, industry-accepted mental health screening tools showed that 35 percent of undergraduates and 32 percent of graduate students in the survey had major depressive disorder, and 39 percent had generalized anxiety disorder. Moreover, the survey found that the following groups experience higher rates of both anxiety and depression on college campuses:

  • Low-income students
  • Students of color
  • Female students
  • LGBTQ+ students
  • Students who are caregivers for children or other adults
  • Those who did not adapt well to remote instruction.

In addition, students majoring in the arts, humanities, communication, and design were more likely to be anxious or depressed. And among all majors, those studying English literature, sociology, anthropology, and psychology had the highest prevalence of both disorders.

Know the Facts

63% of college students say their emotional health is worse than before the pandemic, and 56% are significantly concerned with their ability to care for their mental health.

A Closer Look at College Depression Statistics

Another national survey, this one conducted by the Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association, looked at depression on college campuses through the lens of students’ attitudes and concerns related to COVID-19. Nearly 19,000 students on 14 campuses participated in the survey, titled “The Impact of COVID-10 on College Student Well-Being.”

Interestingly, this survey found that many aspects of students’ lives and mental health remained fairly consistent from 2019 to 2020—including high levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicidal ideation. While substance use and binge drinking decreased slightly in 2020, the number of students reporting academic difficulties related to mental health went up. More students also reported stress related to financial problems.

Another notable finding of the survey was an increase in difficulty accessing mental healthcare after the arrival of the pandemic. Of the 42 percent of students who sought care, 60 percent said it was somewhat or much more difficult to access. This is a grave concern, given that a quarter of young adults say that they have seriously considered suicide since the pandemic began.

Our research shows increasing rates of depression in student populations. We also see troubling changes to risk factors affecting both well-being and college retention, as well as those that reinforce inequalities, particularly for students of color who face systemic barriers to college persistence and lower access to and quality of mental health services.

Sarah Ketchen Lipson, Boston University School of Public Health, co-lead for the Healthy Minds survey

Why Depression on College Campuses Is Rising

Even before COVID, depression on college campuses had become increasingly prevalent, with counseling services unable to keep up with college depression rates. Coming of age in a world struggling with vast political and economic divisions, climate change, and systemic racism left many young adults feeling hopeless about their own futures and the future of the planet. Furthermore, Gen Z was branded “the loneliest generation,” due in large part to the growing lack of face-to-face connection in favor of less meaningful online interactions.

The pandemic has added new stressors for this generation, enhancing the negative effects of depression on college students. In a study conducted in spring 2020, researchers interviewed 195 students at a large public university, and found that close to three-quarters (71 percent) were experiencing increased stress, anxiety, and college depression symptoms due to the pandemic. Their most common stressors included:

  • Fear and worry about their own health and that of their loved ones
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Problems sleeping
  • Disrupted eating patterns
  • Fewer social interactions due to physical distancing
  • Increased concerns about academic performance
  • Changes in their living situation, either returning home to live with parents or reduced interaction with roommates.

Unfortunately, this study on depression and college students found that a vast majority (93 percent) of students who experienced anxiety or depression on college campuses have not used mental health services during the pandemic. Most often, this was because they didn’t think their distress was severe enough to warrant professional support. Moreover, some were uncomfortable interacting with people they didn’t know or talking about mental health problems by phone.

And these issues had not eased by fall of 2020. According to a Jed Foundation study of 200 college students preparing for the fall semester, 82 percent were experiencing anxiety, 68 percent reported loneliness, 63 percent had college depression symptoms, and 60 percent said they had difficulty coping with stress in a healthy way.

While research is not yet available for depression on college campuses in 2021, experts are observing similar trends in college depression rates. Moreover, students who have taken time off from college or are attending remotely from their childhood homes are suffering from virtual isolation, loss of the independence that is so important for emerging adults, and a sense of missing out on the college experience. 

How to Cope with Depression in College

Along with documenting college depression rates, researchers have examined how young adults are coping with their high levels of stress and mental health challenges. Substance abuse continues to be the most common negative coping mechanism for college students. However, many students are doing self-care practices that support their well-being, even as depression on college campuses rises.

When asked how to cope with anxiety and depression in college, here are some of the best and most effective approaches that students reported using, whether they were at home or on campus. All of these methods are scientifically validated, meaning that research has demonstrated their ability to enhance mood and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone).

  • Mindfulness, including meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises
  • Establishing daily routines and organizational systems in order to stay focused and on track
  • Limiting exposure to news and media
  • Positive reframing—looking at situations in a more hopeful light
  • Taking breaks from coursework to do relaxing hobbies, such as reading or drawing
  • Engaging in positive social media interactions
  • Playing with pets
  • Journaling about their emotions and experiences
  • Physical exercise
  • Getting outdoors and connecting with nature
  • Sleeping more—seven to nine hours per night is ideal
  • Focusing on good nutrition
  • Free counseling, on campus or through telehealth
  • Listening to music—the Jed Foundation survey found nearly three-quarters of college students used this tool to support their emotional health
  • Connecting with family and friends, either in person or virtually.

Furthermore, it’s important for young adults to recognize that “it’s okay to not be okay.” When young people practice self-compassion and self-acceptance rather than ignoring or judging their difficult emotions, they are building resilience that will support them now and into the future.

Finally, professional support is essential to address the effects of depression on college students. If you or someone you love is experiencing depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, or other mental health symptoms, we can help. Newport Institute specializes in guiding young adults to sustainable healing through tailored treatment plans encompassing clinical, experiential, academic, and life skills modalities. Contact us today to learn more about our integrated approach.


J Med Internet Res. 2020 Sep; 22(9): e21279.

Student Experience in the Research University Consortium Survey

The Impact of COVID-10 on College Student Well-Being


Mental Health / February 17, 2021

Newport Institute

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