College students last fall reported their highest levels of depression and anxiety of any prior semester, according to U-M’s Healthy Minds Study, an annual web-based survey looking at mental health and service utilization among undergraduate and graduate college students.

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Among the respondents, 47 percent screened positive for clinically significant symptoms of depression or anxiety — up from 44 percent last year and the highest since the survey was started in 2007. The study included data from 32,754 students from 36 colleges and universities, with a response rate 14 percent.

“We are not necessarily attributing this to a dramatic spike in fall of 2020, but we actually see this as part of an overall trend of rising rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health outcomes and concerns that college students are reporting to us over the last five years, certainly, but even perhaps over the last 10 years,” said Justin Heinze, one of the principal investigators of the report.

Heinze, assistant professor of health behavior and health education, said a substantial majority of students indicated that their mental health has negatively affected their academic performance, with 83 percent reporting at least one day of academic impairment due to mental health in the last four weeks.

“Notably, 28 percent of students indicate the highest number of days of impairment: six-plus in the last four weeks, up from 22 percent in spring 2020,” Heinze said.

Other key findings included:

  • Sixty-six percent of students indicated feeling isolated from others — a key risk factor for mental health — sometimes or often.
  • Among students with a positive screen for depression or anxiety, only 40 percent had received any mental health counseling or therapy in the past year.

The Healthy Minds Study began in 2007 to look into how to invest most effectively in the mental health and well-being of college students.

The study collects population-level descriptive data to understand the prevalence of mental health challenges on campus — things like depression, anxiety and eating disorders — and uses that data to help design and evaluate programs and interventions. The program then evaluates these interventions so universities and colleges can direct their resources most effectively to improve the health of their students, Heinze said.

“It really is a partnership between practitioners, administrators, policymakers and students, all having a voice on how we can use this data and translate it into interventions that can help students who are struggling,” Heinze said.

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