The Healthy Minds Study Investigators Author a Definitive Overview of College Student Mental Health

The Healthy Minds Study Investigators Author a Definitive Overview of College Student Mental Health

Robert F. Meenan, MD, MPH, MBA


The Healthy Minds Network is one of the nation’s premier research organizations contributing to a better understanding of adolescent and young adult mental health. The Network conducts a regular population survey, the Healthy Minds Study, that focuses specifically on college student mental health. Its surveys have been conducted at over 400 colleges cumulatively since 2007. The Network produces regular data reports of its survey results, and it convenes an annual symposium for researchers.

Christie Campus Health is proud to be a partner of the Healthy Minds Network. We are working with them to increase the participation of community colleges in the Healthy Minds Study survey program with the goal of better understanding the scope and salient factors of the student mental health crisis in this large and important segment of the higher education system.

The lead investigators of the Healthy Minds Study are located at prestigious academic institutions across the country, including the University of Michigan, UCLA, and Boston University. They regularly publish papers and book chapters that build on their survey results and integrate them into a larger fabric of research on college student mental health, a topic that is consistently rated as a leading concern for college and university presidents.

The HMS investigators have recently produced a book chapter that represents a major contribution to our understanding of college student mental health. In the authors’ words, their aim is to provide “… a detailed review of programs, services, practices, and policies that influence student mental health.” The chapter summarizes a large volume of information in the field, an important portion of which the authors themselves have gathered and analyzed. It also incorporates findings from other major studies, including the National College Health Assessment conducted by the American College Health Association, and the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, which collects standardized data from counseling center clients at hundreds of schools nationwide.

The lead segment of the chapter focuses on the epidemiology of college student mental health. Key findings on this topic include:

  • Over the last 10 years, the prevalence of mental health problems has risen steadily among college students with a particularly notable increase in symptom prevalence over the last 5 years.
  • Between 2016 and 2020, the prevalence of depression among college students increased from 25% to 39%, and the prevalence of anxiety increased from 21% to 34%. This troubling trend has continued during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • The percentage of students screening positive for depression or anxiety who received some form of mental health treatment during the past year has increased during the past decade from 19-26% to 53-56%.

In their comprehensive review of the evidence for the effectiveness of mental health interventions in college students, the authors use a socioecological perspective to examine the effectiveness of interventions that range across the individual, interpersonal, community, institutional, and policy levels. 

At the individual level, the authors review the evidence of effectiveness for broad categories of interventions including: psychoeducational interventions that provide information targeting students’ knowledge of and attitudes toward stress, coping, mental health symptoms, and mental health resources; coaching interventions that seek to change behavior through goal-directed, collaborative strategies, often through motivational interviewing; skill-training interventions that teach students social, emotional, and coping skills; and identity-support interventions that support students’ sense of identity, including but not limited to racial, ethnic, sexual, or gender identity.

A quick and admittedly simplistic summary of their conclusions is that:

  • Psychoeducational interventions are largely ineffective for developing social-emotional skills and improving mental health in college students.
  • Additional research is needed on the effectiveness of coaching interventions such as motivational interviewing and peer coaching.
  • There is substantial evidence for the efficacy of skills training interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Mindfulness programs are particularly effective at reducing emotional distress.
  • Interventions targeting factors related to students’ identity are potentially powerful, but their impact is largely unexplored.

The chapter also includes comprehensive reviews of the effectiveness of interventions at the interpersonal level, including peer, family, and faculty-staff interventions. 

In summary, the chapter contains information and insights on many other topics related to college student mental health. It is a dense and detailed academic treatise, but it’s well worth reading. Those who make the effort to mine it will be rewarded with many valuable nuggets.

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