Why Is Anxiety and Depression in College Students So High? (2024)

Why Is Anxiety and Depression in College Students So High? (1)Share on Pinterest

Stress, anxiety, and depression are common among college students.

College students face many new challenges.

Often for the first time, they’re living away from their families and communities. They’re suddenly presented with new surroundings, social situations, and a heavy academic workload.

Very often these new challenges can feel overwhelming, leading to depression or anxiety. Sometimes this extra pressure can worsen a previously existing condition or trigger its onset.

Many college students experience mental health challenges, two of the most common of these being anxiety and depression.

Often, the symptoms are short-term and can be directly linked to the challenges of being a new student, such as feelings of loneliness. Sometimes it can take a semester or two for students to develop friendships. This transition time may temporarily affect many students’ mental health as a 2012 study found that social support is one of the most important factors for promoting well-being in college students.

Once students begin gaining a sense of belonging at school, many will find their anxiety and depression symptoms begin subsiding as well. Other students, however, may find their symptoms to be the start of a mental health disorder.

In fact, early adulthood is when many mental health disorders first appear. A 2014 study revealed that by age 25, 75% of those who will develop a mental health disorder have already had their first onset.

The distress that comes with anxiety and depression can impact many aspects of a student’s life.

Research from 2021 revealed that untreated mental health is linked to alcohol and substance misuse, relationship instability, lower self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts.

If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available

You can access free support right away with these resources:

  • 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.Call the Lifeline at 988 for English or Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • The Crisis Text Line.Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
  • The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text “START” to 678678, or chat online 24/7.
  • Veterans Crisis Line.Call 988 and press 1, text 838255, or chat online 24/7.
  • Deaf Crisis Line.Call 321-800-3323, text “HAND” to 839863, or visit their website.
  • Befrienders Worldwide.This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.

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How common is anxiety among college students?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders, affecting about 11.9% of college students. Many of these disorders show their first symptoms during adolescence or early adulthood.

Some of the most common anxiety disorders include:

  • social anxiety
  • panic disorder
  • generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

While social anxiety often begins in childhood or adolescence (usually around ages 7-14), the other anxiety disorders may first appear or get triggered during the stressful college years.

But even among students who aren’t diagnosed with a specific anxiety disorder, many are vulnerable to high levels of anxiety in college.

A 2018 survey found that 63% of college students in the United States reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year. About 23% reported being diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional in the past year.

Anxiety has spiked in college students in recent years. A small 2020 study found that 71% of college students had increased stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How common is depression in college students?

Depression occurs in about 7-9% of college students, but it can begin much earlier in life. In fact, nearly half of all depression cases have their first onset by age 18.

Suicide is also a major concern, as it’s the third leading cause of death among young adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A large 2015 survey found that among 8,155 students, 6.7% reported having suicidal thoughts, 1.6% reported having a suicide plan, and 0.5% had attempted suicide in the past year.

Are mental health problems increasing among students?

Mental health is a growing concern on college campuses across the United States. According to a 2018 study, more than 95% of directors at college counseling centers report that managing students’ mental health is a growing concern.

This study also revealed that mental health problems have increased significantly among college students in recent decades. The number of students entering college with a mental health disorder has increased as well.

While it’s not entirely clear what’s causing this trend, a 2018 study suggests that adolescents who spent more time on electronic devices (social media, smartphones, and gaming) and less time engaging in activities without electronics had decreased psychological well-being.

Symptoms of anxiety vary among individuals, but may include the following symptoms:

  • poor concentration
  • feelings of restlessness or being on edge
  • worry or nervousness
  • muscle tension
  • feeling fatigued or weak
  • sleep difficulties
  • feeling out of control
  • sense of impending doom
  • fast heart rate
  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • stomachaches or headaches
  • rapid breathing

Symptoms of depression may include:

  • persistent low mood
  • fatigue
  • feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, or pessimism
  • irritability
  • emotional numbness
  • loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • poor concentration and memory
  • moving or talking more slowly
  • feeling restless
  • insomnia or oversleeping
  • appetite or weight changes
  • aches and pains without a clear cause
  • thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempt

In the past couple decades, several studies conducted around the world (in both developed and developing countries) have shown that anxiety, depression, and stress are high among college students.

From social to academic stressors, not only do college students face many challenges, but many mental health disorders begin during this time.

A 2021 study suggests that these risk factors fall under six distinct categories:

  • psychological
  • academic
  • biological
  • lifestyle
  • social
  • financial

Within these categories, some of the most common risk factors include:

  • underlying mental health condition
  • substance use
  • academic pressure
  • low self-esteem or self-confidence
  • inadequate sleep
  • lack of social support
  • financial problems
  • in a minority group
  • internet addiction

Most college-related psychological stress happens in the first year of college. Receiving the right treatment can make all the difference for students in both their academic success and overall well-being. However, currently, many students aren’t receiving the help they need.

A large online survey from 2011 found that only 36% of students experiencing a mental health problem had received treatment in the previous year.

Reasons for not seeking help include:

  • fear of stigma
  • not perceiving treatment as essential or urgent
  • lack of time
  • denial of symptoms
  • lack of adequate treatment options
  • financial struggles

Besides reaching out to a mental health professional, there are several things students can do to help cope with symptoms of anxiety and depression:

  • Try not to avoid your stressors. Whether you’re dealing with social anxiety or test anxiety, try to tackle the things that scare you most. Maybe this involves going to a party or getting started on your next big assignment. Getting started is often the hardest part, but once you get going, it often becomes easier and you gain self-confidence.
  • Practice self-care. Never underestimate the power of healthy eating, exercising, and getting enough sleep. When possible, try to spend time outside, make time with friends, and practice sleep hygiene. Limiting or avoiding alcohol or other substances can also help.
  • Seek out resources. Check to see if your campus has mental health services or mental health support groups. The Center for Online Education offers a large list of resources for college students seeking mental health support. You can also seek an outside mental health counselor.

If you’re a college student living with anxiety, depression, or both, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Most campuses have mental health counselors who can provide you with support.

Getting the right diagnosis and treatment can significantly increase your well-being and help you better cope with the everyday stressors of college life. Remember, college may be about gaining independence but you are not alone.

Why Is Anxiety and Depression in College Students So High? (2024)


Why are depression rates rising in college students? ›

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.

Why is anxiety so high in college students? ›

College students face many new challenges. Often for the first time, they're living away from their families and communities. They're suddenly presented with new surroundings, social situations, and a heavy academic workload. Very often these new challenges can feel overwhelming, leading to depression or anxiety.

Why do most college students suffer from stress and anxiety? ›

College students commonly experience stress because of increased responsibilities, a lack of good time management, changes in eating and sleeping habits, and not taking enough breaks for self-care. Transitioning to college can be a source of stress for most first-year students.

Why are the rates of depression and other mental health issues so high for college students? ›

Being away from home, and the stress of separation from family, as well as having to care for themselves in a new setting can be the perfect storm for the development of mental health problems during college.

What is the largest contributing factor of depression in college students? ›

Depression and College Students. A lack of sleep, poor eating habits, and not enough exercise are a recipe for depression among college students.

Why is mental illness so common in college students? ›

Students spend a large percentage of time engaged in academic pursuits at university, and poor academic performance can harm their mental health. Receiving worse grades during their studies can have a severe impact on student's mental health, leading to the development of SAD (28).

What triggers student anxiety? ›

Concerns about not having enough friends, not being in the same class as friends, not being able to keep up with friends in one particular area or another, interpersonal conflicts, and peer pressure are a few of the very common ways kids can be stressed by their social lives at school.

What percent of college students struggle with anxiety? ›

Data Summary. In 2022, over three-quarters of college students (77%) experienced moderate to serious psychological distress. 35% of students were diagnosed with anxiety; 27% had depression.

Why do students struggle with anxiety? ›

A lack of self-care and having an unhealthy lifestyle are risk factors for stress and anxiety among students. A lack of self-care can cause sense of guilt which can pose as another risk factor.

What is the number one stressor for college students? ›

31% of students say exams and midterms are the most significant sources of stress. 64.5% of college students with relationship problems feel stressed because of them. 33% of college students think about leaving college because of financial problems. Financial problems are a source of stress for 74% of college students.

Why is there so much pressure on college students? ›

When college students begin college they experience pressure from multiple sources. For example, they experience pressure from their parents to succeed, from their professors, and pressure from themselves to do well in classes. This pressure could lead to high anxiety and possibly even poor performance in classes.

What is the number one cause of stress for college students? ›

The main cause for stressed out students is the heavy coursework they are taking on. Teens who want to get a jump on college may also sign up for extra classes, only adding to the burden. Too often, the teen takes on subjects that exceed their academic ability, causing added stress. Not enough sleep.

Why are college students mental health bad? ›

Traditional college students are in a transitional age, young adulthood, which is associated with numerous stressors and during which many mental health problems often first occur. Non-traditional college students also face numerous stressors associated with having multiple roles, demands, and financial obligations.

What do most college students struggle with? ›

Common Issues for College Students.
  • Stress, perfectionism, procrastination, time management.
  • Lack of confidence, assertiveness, self-esteem.
  • Past or recent trauma, abuse (physical, sexual, emotional), sexual assault, or stalking.
  • Sexuality or gender identity questions.
Sep 19, 2022

Why do students struggle in college? ›

Students at every stage of college can struggle with time management and organization, also known as executive functioning skills. In high school, these skills are often supported by teachers, guidance counselors, special education teachers and parents — all of whom are absent in college.

Do college students have higher rates of depression? ›

Depression. Depression —a mood disorder impacting thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — commonly crops up in college. 27% of college students had been diagnosed with depression or another mood disorder. 23% said depression negatively impacted their academic performance in the last 12 months.

What are three key contributors to depression in college students? ›

The severity of symptoms caused by depressive disorder may vary among individuals and also over time. Depression is twice as common in men as in women. Three key contributors to depression in college students are: stress, too little sleep, and academic and athletic pressures.

What would cause college students in particular to be specifically prone to depression? ›

In summary, compared with teenagers and adults, college students are the key group at significantly higher risk of poor mental health. A series of factors, including family, college, studies, and social interactions, are likely to induce college students' depression.

What factors affect depression among university students? ›

Various risk factors for depression among university students have been identified such as higher study year [18,19], lower socioeconomic status [17,19], poor academic performance and life satisfaction [20], high level of alcohol consumption, smoking [21,22], gambling [23], social support [24], life stressors [25], ...

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