Financial Stress Among Students Warrants More Mental Health Support on Campus

Financial Stress Among Students Warrants More Mental Health Support on Campus

Robert F. Meenan, MD, MPH, MBA
President, Christie Campus Health

There is an old saying that money is the root of all evil. While that’s an overstatement, it is not an overstatement to say that money is an important source of stress for today’s college students.

Many college students were worried about money before the pandemic. Now COVID-19 disruptions have further undermined their financial capacities and their financial plans. Money worries contribute substantially to the high rates of anxiety and depression among students, which have been growing for decades and have now spiked with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Student worries about money flow from a number of current and future concerns. These include:

Can I afford to pay tuition and fees? Students across the full range of higher education have long worried about their ability to afford tuition and fees.  While increases in tuition and fees have flattened in recent years, the issue now is that family and student incomes have been compromised by the pandemic.

How do I cover my housing and food costs? In recent years colleges have come to recognize that housing and food insecurity are common among their students and undermine academic achievement and graduation rates.  Both the prevalence and the impact of housing and food security have increased with COVID-19 due to the widespread closure of dorms and dining halls.

How badly has the pandemic hurt my personal and family income? The COVID-19 shut-downs produced a record drop in employment that wiped out all the job gains that had been made after the 2008-2009 recession. Despite Federal and state efforts to provide supplemental unemployment benefits, these job losses resulted in major drops in family income. Student incomes also dipped due to the elimination of many on-campus jobs and the absence of paid internships. These income losses are likely to linger and spread as the pandemic persists and the jobs recovery stalls.

Will I be able to get a job in a post-pandemic economy? In a recent survey from the American Psychological Association entitled Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis two out of three college students say the pandemic makes planning for the future feel impossible. Many career tracks that previously looked promising are now uncertain or unavailable--careers in hospitality or the performing arts to cite two examples. The job market for college students is generally bleak as employers across the economy cut back on hiring.

Will I be able to repay my student loans?  Student loan payments have become even more daunting in the COVID-19 era, once again due to widespread employment and income disruptions. While student loan payments have been suspended for much of 2020 as part of the Federal pandemic relief efforts, those loans will still have to be repaid. It also remains true that student loans are uniquely difficult to discharge through personal bankruptcy. Most importantly, loan repayments become especially challenging in the context of widespread unemployment.

These multiple concerns about money are contributing in major ways to the mental health crisis among college students. While colleges may be limited in their ability to address student financial concerns directly, they can and must respond to the mental health consequences of those concerns. The ultimate goal is to promote student enrollment, retention, and graduation.

Towards those ends, colleges should focus on taking steps in four key areas:

Bolster mental health services capacity: Colleges must help the growing number of students with mental health issues and respond to the growing severity of their issues. The services offered should be increasingly student-centric and technology enabled, and they should be designed to work for an increasingly dispersed and culturally diverse student body.

Increase campus awareness about mental health issues: Active efforts should be made to destigmatize mental health problems and to increase student use of mental health services. Special efforts should be aimed at groups that traditionally underutilize mental health services, including STEM students, athletes, international students, and minority students.

Reduce or eliminate financial barriers to mental health care: There should be no co-pays for mental health care as even $10 can be a prohibitive barrier for some students.  Schools should also strengthen linkages to insured coverage from off-campus providers.

Promote equity and social justice: Schools should acknowledge that the financial impacts of COVID-19 have been much greater on minority students and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Their outreach and cost-mitigation efforts should be particularly focused on these students.

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