Every Learner Everywhere

Preparing for the Increase in Student Anxiety and Depression in the College Classroom

College and university faculty can reasonably anticipate a significant increase in the number of students experiencing depression and anxiety in the coming academic year. During the last three semesters, students have reported alarming levels of depression and anxiety fueled by the transition to unfamiliar virtual learning modalities, isolation, economic stress, and the illness or death of loved ones.

Though we can’t yet know how a decline in the COVID-19 pandemic may bring relief to these mental health challenges, it is likely to have ongoing effects for students and their academic performance under the best of circumstances. Meanwhile, continued uncertainty about the progress of the pandemic and a full “return to normal” can itself contribute to depression and anxiety.

Several recent surveys document deepening depression and anxiety in college students in 2020 and 2021 so far:

  • A Healthy Minds Network survey of 33,000 students in fall 2020 found that 50 percent had either major or minor depression and 34 percent had anxiety, impacting memory and concentration. These are the highest numbers since the poll began in 2007, according to one of the study’s co-authors.
  • In a survey of more than 2,000 students at Texas A&M, 48 percent showed a moderate to severe level of depression, while 38 percent showed a moderate to severe level of anxiety. A majority — 71 percent — felt their stress and anxiety had increased during the pandemic, yet only 43 percent said they felt able to cope with the added stress.
  • A University of California at Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education survey of more than 30,000 students at nine public universities during May to July 2020 found that 35 percent of the undergraduates screened positive for major depression, double the same survey in 2019. Nearly 40 percent exhibited anxiety disorder, 50 percent higher than in 2019. The survey notes anxiety and depression levels ranked higher among low-income students, students of color, LGBTQ students, and those caring for loved ones.
  • Researchers from University of North Carolina were also able to compare surveys from before and during the pandemic and found that moderate to severe anxiety rose from 18.1 percent to 25.3 percent within four months, and that rates of moderate to severe depression increased from 21.5 percent to 31.7 percent. Difficulty adapting to distance learning and social isolation contributed to the rise in anxiety and depression symptoms.

The stress of adjusting to virtual learning intersected with existing and increasing economic and health challenges for college and university students. Hope4College’s #RealCollege 2021: Basic Needs Insecurity During the Ongoing Pandemic survey of more than 195,000 students found:

  • three in five experienced basic needs insecurity;
  • 39 percent of two-year and 29 percent of four-year college students experienced food insecurity;
  • 48 percent were affected by housing insecurity and 14 percent are affected by homelessness;
  • a 16-percentage-point difference between Black and white students on basic needs insecurity; and
  • 13 percent had lost a loved one to COVID-19, a figure that was more than twice as high for Latinx students than for white students.

Meanwhile, the stress of the pandemic is being compounded by the anxiety and fatigue Black students may be feeling from ongoing exposure in the media to police brutality. For example, a 2018 study in The Lancet examined the “spillover effect” of police killings of unarmed Black citizens and found that each incident correlated with significant increases in poor mental health days for Black Americans.

How depression and anxiety affect academic performance

Moreover, educators can anticipate that depression and anxiety will impact the academic performance of college and university students. The #RealCollege 2021 survey found that about 40 percent of students said they had trouble accessing virtual instruction. More than 60 percent of two-year college students and 80 percent of students at four-year colleges reported having difficulty concentrating in class.

In Time for Class, COVID-19 Edition, Part 3: The Impact of 2020 on Introductory Faculty and Their Students, instructors report an increase in DFWI (D, F, Withdrawn, or Incomplete) rates. The rise was particularly acute among two-year colleges.

An oft-cited 2009 article published in the B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy found that “depression is a significant predictor of lower GPA and higher probability of dropping out, particularly among students who also have a positive screen for an anxiety disorder.”

Anxiety and depression can be particularly damaging to academics because the conditions impair attention, memory, information processing, and executive function.

The biggest impact on academic performance, of course, is leaving school. Undergraduate enrollment declined for all demographic groups in the 2020-21 academic year, but it was particularly acute at community colleges and for Indigenous, Asian, and Latino students, according to The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

How to spot signs of depression and anxiety in the online college classroom

Spotting signs of anxiety and depression in students in a virtual setting is similar to in-person classes: Poor attendance, failing to complete assignments, appearing disinterested, or erratic performance all signal a student may be suffering from anxiety and depression.

Isaiah Pickens, a psychologist and educational consultant, writing to K-12 educators in EdSurge, says that these mental health challenges may show up in virtual environments in unique ways. “Arguing, refusing to work, communicating in verbally aggressive ways, or bickering with parents in the background during class are all signs to watch,” he writes. Withdrawing, or “zoning out” during class, along with short-term memory deficits, are other warning signs, he adds.

How college instructors can reduce the effects of depression and anxiety in the classroom

With all young adults eligible for the vaccine by the summer of 2021, many are hoping for a “traditional” fall semester. However, persistent economic worries and the lingering anxiety and depression exacerbated by the pandemic may hamper student progress for months. Further, a return to normal isn’t a certainty. Colleges may delay on-campus classes until all students are vaccinated and continue virtual or hybrid instruction.

College instructors can consider a number of inclusive teaching practices to reduce how depression and anxiety impact the academic performance of their students.

Rethink due dates and deadlines

Boston University Professor Sarah Ketchen Lipson recommends professors give students more time to complete assignments. “Faculty need to be flexible with deadlines and remind students that their talent is not solely demonstrated by their ability to get a top grade during one challenging semester,” Lipson says.

When setting deadlines, Lipson suggests a 5 p.m. target rather than midnight or 9 a.m. A late-afternoon deadline will encourage students to get the sleep they need instead of staying up all night to finish the project, she explains.

Break up assignments

KaSai Un, Assistant Professor, Mathematics, Texas A&M University–Commerce, has found that breaking up assignments into “bite-sized” pieces helps her first-year math students digest the materials easier. In a profile in Time for Class, COVID-19 Edition, Part 3: The Impact of 2020 on Introductory Faculty and Their Students, she describes how she details individual concepts in short videos and also familiarizes her students with digital tools.

Design clear and easy-to-navigate online courses

Uncertainty exacerbates anxiety and depression, so overly complicated courses can contribute to the stress students are experiencing.

Dr. Tracy Orr, an educational researcher and instructor in the Faculty of Social Work at Portage College in Lac La Biche, Alberta, Canada, says user-friendly, clear-cut course design can boost academic achievement in students suffering from depression.

“Because of the cognitive impacts of depression and lack of energy, it is important that courses are designed with essential elements clearly identified with minimal redirection or navigation,” she says in an interview about her research on the effect of depression on women in online courses.

“Care should be taken to emphasize clarity and readability. Courses that show potential schedules for review of content and assignment completion are useful especially when depression impacts students’ ability to organize themselves.”

Make students comfortable expressing themselves

Divulging personal or family issues is difficult for students. One teaching method to consider is putting students at ease with a “Getting to Know You” survey at the start of the semester.

Simply asking “What I wish my teacher knew” could open a dialogue about their struggles with learning and personal challenges. If teachers know what students face outside the classroom, they can help them overcome those struggles. One example of this tactic is from Michelle Pacansky-Brock.

Let students know help is available

Colleges and universities offer mental health counseling, but many students and teachers may not be aware of those services. When instructors know of those services, they can let students know help is available in a concrete way.

Orr, in her interview about clear course design, says, “Mental health supports available to students should be clearly advertised and accessed through each course’s main page. It was evident from my study’s participants that fatigue and the cognitive impacts of depression made searching school websites for support very difficult.”

Lipson of Boston University recommends that “instructors can send class-wide emails reinforcing the idea that they care about their students not just as learners but as people, and circulate information about campus resources for mental health and wellness.”

Plan and be proactive

As the data cited above shows, minoritized and poverty-affected students have been bearing more of the impact of the pandemic, and colleges and universities must prepare to confront and address the impacts of anxiety and depression on college students.

Four leaders of the Black First-Gen Collective, writing in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, say that colleges and universities that take seriously their responsibility to educate all students will make the mental health of their most vulnerable students a high priority. Among other things, they recommend that colleges invest in Black first-generation student mental health research initiatives, and in providing culturally competent staff and training for administrators.

“Focusing specifically on Black first-generation college students will help us gain a clear understanding of the mental health stigma, self-concealment, and help-seeking attitudes,” they write. “Access to this information may provide counseling and other support services on campus with the tools to develop and refine interventions and outreach programs specifically for Black first-generation college students.”

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