National emergency declared in child and teen mental health – what this means for college students

OSWEGO N.Y. — In early October, a group of health professionals and psychiatric experts around the nation gathered enough data to declare a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. 

This comes nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and for young adults specifically in higher education, their mental health is also taking a toll. 

“With the environment constantly changing, it’s kind of hard to reach stability in mental health,” Nicole Hillyard, a student at University at Buffalo said about her own struggles this year. 

This includes SUNY Oswego students who have been feeling the effects of keeping up with mandates as the school resumes in-person activities. 

“We’re so used to just having all these online classes, and not doing as much, and now we’re doing so much more,” Seth Nesbitt, a SUNY Oswego student said in regards to coming back in person. “I feel like a lot of my peers and I are having a hard time with the readjustments.” 

“I just needed to take a semester off to help fix my mental health…”

Keaundrea Handford

A study called Healthy Minds Network found that last fall, college students in particular reported peak levels of depression and anxiety. 

The study is led by four professors at different universities, and it details the rising trend over the last several  years of mental health concerns, especially depression and anxiety, among college students. 

Experts with the study reported that 47% of students screened positive for “clinically significant symptoms of depression, and/or anxiety,” which is the highest percentage since the trials began in 2007. 

This data comes from the Healthy Minds Network website – it shows the percentage of students who have screened positive for depression and anxiety from 2007 to 2021. Graphic created by Melanie Higgins.

“I have terrible anxiety attacks, like constantly, so I kinda knew that if I lived alone, especially two hours away, I would have to come home every day, and I knew that wouldn’t have worked,” Keaundrea Handford, a student at SUNY Brockport said about why she took this semester off. “I just needed to take this semester off to help fix my mental health.” 

The Healthy Minds Network also studied that feeling of isolation, something Handford said she dreaded about going back to school.

In the study, they found that about 66% of students indicated feeling isolated from others sometimes or often, which experts said is a key risk factor in mental health.

At Wayne Behavioral Health, a mental health center located in Wayne County, representatives said most facilities no longer have enough staff to cover the rise in mental health concerns. However, the introduction of telehealth services during the pandemic helped them bring a new resource to patients in need. 

“Because of the fact that a lot of insurance companies now kind of across the board are  allowing telehealth, which is either by telephone or video conference,” Suzanne Catholdi, the communications liaison for Wayne Behavioral Health said. “A lot of people who weren’t seen before now have more accessibility.” 

“They lost that, they lost those contacts, they lost that structure, a lot of kids were at home alone…”

SUZANNE CATHOLDI

Mental health facilities all over the country have been struggling to keep up with the rise of these mental health concerns, and many have also been utilizing telehealth services as a result. 

Catholdi said younger people and college students being seen at Wayne Behavioral are taking advantage of the virtual services now offered if they aren’t already using their on-campus college therapists. 

However wait times across the board for many mental health facilities are becoming problematic for those in need. For Strong Hospital in Rochester, they said over the summer that wait times for those seeking therapy reached over one year. 

“Our mental health therapists, they need to be able to be available and be on top of the needs, and we need to be supportive of our medical staff as well,” Catholdi said about facilities falling behind.

She emphasized that staff all around are “suffering,” so It’s important to keep working through the pandemic and keep schools open as a resource for those struggling. 

“There were a lot of kids who were struggling already, that really needed that contact in the school with the teachers and professors,” Catholdi said while talking about the effects the shutdowns had on students. 

“When there’s nothing for people to do, and no support in place, and a big question mark day-to-day about what they’re doing,” Catholdi added. “It was a big disaster waiting to happen.” 

She said that students and adults “lost that structure,” and it led to a huge uptick in mental health concerns. Now therapy has become a big point of discussion. 

“I did start therapy, and it actually helped quite a lot,” Nesbitt said. 

But Nesbitt also said that despite these concerns being more publicly talked about, some students aren’t opening up enough. 

“I would recommend that help to anyone,” Nesbitt explained, “Those who may be going through something, but even if you’re just alive, it’s good to just have that outlet.” 


As things continue to open up, and people adjust to a normal life after two years shut down, those mental health concerns continue to be analyzed. The Healthy Minds Study is still in the process of gathering data during this time, and more colleges are being enrolled to help diversify the results.