“An undercurrent of anxiety”: record number of students seek Yale mental health services
The combined effects of unique stressors and mental health destigmatization have led students to seek Yale Mental Health and Counseling Services at a higher rate than usual.
Tenzin Jorden, Contributing Photographer
Yale Mental Health and Counseling has already seen over 500 more students this year than last, according to MHC Director Paul Hoffman. If students continue to request MHC services at this rate, the clinic will see the highest single-year increase in students seeking mental health care in its history.
Hoffman explained that these numbers are proportionate with Yale’s record enrollment for the 2021-22 academic year — there are about 240 more students in the class of 2025 than in a typical class year. However, Hoffman added that the mental health challenges experienced by students seem to be more severe than in previous years. This semester, he said, MHC is typically offering treatment to approximately 1,000 students each week.
“Overall, there has been a national trend in students utilizing mental health treatment at increasing rates,” Hoffman wrote in an email to the News. “Yale has seen significant yearly increases in students seeking treatment since 2015. This seems tied to decreasing stigma around mental health and an increase in rates of anxiety and depression.”
Psychologists interviewed by the News attributed the increased number of students seeking treatment to the combined effects of unique pressures on students’ mental health — including the COVID-19 pandemic — and the gradual normalization of mental health care.
From 2014-19, the number of students receiving mental health care at the largest public University in each state grew by 35 percent, despite total enrollment increasing by only five percent.
“Students are seeking mental health care at higher rates across the country, and this is true at Yale, too,” Corinne Coia, community wellness specialist at Yale College Community Care, wrote in an email to the News.
“We’re all still not happy”: lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences have touched off renewed conversation surrounding the issue of student mental health.
Sarah Lowe, a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, cited bereavement, disruption to routines and social isolation as some of the primary stressors that have come as a result of the pandemic.
“The pandemic is not over,” Lowe said. “Even though we’ve returned to normal in some ways, in some ways, it’s definitely not normal. We’re still masking and social distancing, and there are still clusters of cases, people who are unvaccinated and a lot of political tension surrounding that.”
In a filmed interview with YTV, Tyler Brown ’23 said that the pandemic brought dormant mental health challenges to light for many students.
During the early stages of the pandemic, Brown said, it was easy for students to attribute their struggling mental wellbeing to the pandemic and its effects.
“My hypothesis about why people are seeking mental health more than ever is that it was very easy during COVID to blame things on COVID,” Brown said.
Now, with universities returning to some degree of normalcy through in-person classes and campuses at full capacity, many students continue to struggle.
“People had high expectations for what life would be like after COVID,” Brown said. “Now that there’s not really a pandemic to blame, there’s no explanation for suffering. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to wait a little bit longer and things will be over, or once I’m vaccinated, things will be fine.’ Because we’re all vaccinated, and we’re all still not happy.”
Since it has become harder to blame mental health challenges on COVID-19, Brown suggested, students are forced to confront mental health issues that transcend the pandemic. They might seek mental health care accordingly.
Lowe said that there would probably be evidence to back up Brown’s theory.
“Just because certain things have come back to normal doesn’t mean that the mental health problems that may have emerged in the past 18 months aren’t lingering,” Lowe said. “Just because you remove the stressors doesn’t mean that the symptoms necessarily go away.”
“Modern life is pretty difficult”: students face an increase in stressors
A host of issues beyond the pandemic that have come to the forefront of national attention over the past year also contribute to student anxiety.
The increase in students seeking mental health care, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun said, is happening not only at Yale, but around the country.
“I think there’s just broader social factors,” Chun said. “Certainly, the pandemic affected things as well, but this trajectory was very sharply increasing even before the pandemic. It can’t be attributed to the pandemic alone. Modern life is pretty difficult.”
Chun suggested social media as a potential detriment to student mental health, noting that many of the challenges associated with social media are unique to the present day. Lowe also listed social media as one of the factors that threaten student mental health, adding that social media activity increases the risk that someone will be exposed to trauma in the media.
Lowe listed several other factors that have arisen in the past few years which might have a negative impact on student mental health.
“I think that the movement towards racial justice has been great but has also exposed a lot of people to race-based violence and discrimination, both directly and vicariously,” Lowe said. “Last year’s election and political tensions add to this undercurrent of stress.”
More broadly, Lowe referenced the increasing recognition of the severity of climate change, and disasters that occur as a result of climate change, as contributors to an “undercurrent of anxiety.”
On college campuses specifically, Lowe said that a strong emphasis on achievement could potentially pose a threat to student mental health.
“I think there’s a precedent for working nonstop and pulling all-nighters and doing these things that we know can undermine mental health wellness,” Lowe said. “So I think those types of things shouldn’t be seen as a rite of passage or a normal part of college life.”
Brown described a similar culture at Yale, speaking of the competitive nature which he said might be endemic to the University as an elite institution.
“There are students who perpetuate this competitive culture and contribute to a toxic environment, and they form groups, and then ostracize other people,” Brown said.
According to Lowe, schools like Yale, which attract students who are “very hardworking and achievement oriented,” should encourage students both to take their courses seriously and to balance them with maintaining their mental health.
“Increased dialogue”: destigmatizing mental health issues
Although Lowe stressed that she cannot predict the future, Lowe said that the number of students seeking mental health care would likely continue to increase, but that this was not necessarily a cause for alarm.
“There has been a decrease in mental health stigma and awareness of mental health symptomatology,” Lowe said. “In some ways, it’s therefore great that students are seeking out mental health services to address issues that have been long standing in the college age population. I think the challenge is meeting the increased demand for services.”
Yale currently offers several avenues for mental health care — in addition to individual, couples’ or group therapy through MHC, students can receive more immediate treatment through YC3, an organization founded this spring that matches students with short-term therapists.
Additional resources like Walden Peer Counseling and the Good Life Center are also available.
In an interview with YTV, Shruti Parthasarathy ’24 discussed the importance of destigmatizing mental health care on campus.
“I think one major cultural shift that needs to happen on campus is this idea of cultivating an environment that encourages one another to seek help, within themselves and within others,” Parthasarathy said. “That cultural norm or that cultural shift only happens with increased dialogue, and increased dialogue can only happen when we have a strengthened sense of peer relations on campus.”
Parthasarathy said that the student body’s ability to benefit from mental health care was dependent on a campus culture that welcomes and encourages students to seek treatment.
Chun also emphasized destigmatizing campus mental health care.
“As a psychologist, destigmatization is a good thing,” Chun said. “We always want students to seek out help, and professional help, when they feel they need it and have an issue that they want to discuss with a professional. I’m glad that students understand that it’s good to reach out to mental health services when they need it.”
All Yale students enrolled at least half time in a degree program are eligible for counseling at MHC free of charge.