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An emerging mental health crisis

College-age students are facing a mental health crisis as the country passes the one year milestone of the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns.

Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University, said he is concerned as mental health issues in the country have increased since the beginning of the pandemic and young people seem to be affected far worse.

As of January 2021, 41.1% of adults have reported feeling symptoms of anxiety or depression. During the time period between January and June 2019, only 11% of adults reported these same symptoms. (Illustration by Claudia Silva)

The Kaiser Family Foundation found that as of January 2021, 41.1% of adults have reported feeling symptoms of anxiety or depression. During the time period between January and June 2019, only 11% of adults reported these same symptoms. Additional polls published in June 2020 found that 53% of participants reported feeling that their mental health was negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.

Khubchandani and his colleagues also conducted their own study assessing the prevalence of depression and anxiety in adults in the U.S. The study used The Patient Health Questionnaire-4 to briefly assess levels of anxiety and depression. While the PHQ-4 scale does not offer diagnoses, mental health experts use this as an “ultra brief and accurate measurement” to determine if a person may need additional evaluation.

The study found that young adults between the ages of 18 and 25, racial and ethnic minorities, and low-income families are more likely to have depression and anxiety as a result of COVID-19 and the lockdowns.

“Even before the pandemic, I think young people in the United States were not at the best capacity of their mind,” Khubchandani said. “They’re 19, 20 years old, they just started their life, going to college … Overnight they were thrown out of classes, dorms and some were graduating but couldn’t find an internship or job. It seems like the numbers have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic.”

Khubchandani explained going through lockdowns may be similar to what prisoners face when they are incarcerated for long periods of time.

Jagdish Khubchandani, public health sciences professor at New Mexico State University. (Photo courtesy of NMSU)

“Half of the prisoners in America have mental health or drug abuse issues. Now I don’t know if they went to the jail because they are mentally ill or the jail made them ill. Clearly it seems like if you’re constrained and don’t have the freedom, independence and you have little control on your life that makes people stressed and then eventually anxious and depressed,” Khubchandani said.

The amount and perceived quality of the media people consume may be another factor contributing to mental health issues according to Dr. Khubchandani. Another study he and his colleagues conducted found that young adults between 18 and 25, Hispanic Americans, African-Americans and participants reporting anxiety or depression were more likely to feel concerns about the amount of COVID-19 information they see in the media.

Some students, like journalism major Aaron Gonzalez, feel overloaded by the amount of pandemic-related information they see.

“I would say, as of late, I’ve been feeling a lot more stress and anxiety,” Gonzalez said. “Some of that has to do with it being my last semester at NMSU, but also the other half that contributes to my anxiety and stress is listening to the news. I try my best not to be so caught up in what is taking place, but to know just enough so I can be informed of what is happening locally and nationally.”

Khubchandani explained college students may be more susceptible to this kind of stress as they are more likely to spend their time behind a screen, especially in the age of social distancing.

“With young people there is a lot of loneliness and uncertainty and they depend a lot on the media,” Khubchandani said. “They’re more connected and I think that’s where they need to [take] a break looking at all this social media.”

The shutdown also left many Americans without resources and support systems, especially more vulnerable populations like minorities and young adults. Khubchandani explained that health care professionals and advocates need to urgently address the mental health needs of their communities and offer these resources.

“As much as COVID is getting attention, which is good, we have to tell people how to balance their mental health and reduce stress and manage life … This is going to be the next pandemic after this pandemic. We’ll see a bunch of opioid abuse, drug use, suicides and disabilities from depression and anxiety,” Khubchandani said.

While there is still little data on drug use, overdoses and suicides during COVID-19, another KFF poll found that 12% of participants increased their drug or alcohol use because of worry or stress related to the pandemic. This increase, paired with increased levels of depression and anxiety, worry medical professionals like Dr. Khubchandani and his colleagues.

Khubchandani recommends people spend time developing healthy habits like eating well, reducing screen time, going outdoors and reaching out to someone when they’re struggling. While these tips can help with anxiety and depression, he admits there is still much work to be done to address these issues on a wider scale.

He explained the importance of taking a collaborative approach to dealing with this emerging mental health crisis. This includes providing social activities, community based rehab, educational opportunities and using technology to implement these programs.

Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani offers “Mindful Tips” to help combat anxiety and depression during the pandemic. (Illustration courtesy of Aggie Experts)

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