Science Summary

Dana Humphrey / October 15, 2018

The Mental Health Effects of Teen and Young Adults Use of Digital Health Tools and Social Media

A recent report sponsored by Hopelab and Well Being Trust examines young people’s use of online health information and digital health tools, and the association between their use of social media, and mental wellbeing. The survey of more than 1,300 U.S. teens and young adults, ages 14 to 22 showed that young people experiencing mental health issues are turning to the internet for help,  including researching mental health issues online (90 percent), accessing other people's health stories through blogs, podcasts, and videos (75 percent), using mobile apps related to well-being (38 percent), and connecting with health providers through digital tools such as texting and video chat (32 percent). Young women are more likely than men to go online for information about anxiety (55 percent vs. 29 percent) or depression (49 percent vs. 27 percent). LGBTQ youth are even more likely to have looked for mental health information online; 76 percent have looked online for information about depression, compared to 32 percent of straight youth; 75 have looked for information about anxiety, compared to 36 percent of their straight peers; and 68 percent have looked for information on stress, compared to 40 percent of straight youth.

Many young people reported that social media helps them find connection, support, and inspiration during times of depression, stress, or anxiety.  Respondents who reported moderate to severe symptoms of depression were nearly twice as likely as those with no symptoms to say that social media helps connect them to useful support and advice when they feel depressed, stressed or anxious (25 percent vs. 13 percent). And among those with symptoms of depression, 30 percent said social media is "very" important to them for feeling less alone, compared to 7 percent of those without depression. Of the 33 percent of young people who connected with health peers online, 91 percent of them say the experience was helpful.

However, there are mixed reactions among young people using social media for support. Respondents were only slightly more likely to say that when they are feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious, using social media makes them feel better (30 percent) than they are to say it makes them feel worse (22 percent).  And while 65 percent of all teens and young adults say they "hardly ever" or "never" feel left out when using social media, about a third (34 percent) say they often or sometimes do. And young people with moderate to severe depressive symptoms are more likely than those without to say that when they use social media, they often feel left out (18 percent compared with 1 percent) or that others are doing better than they are (32 percent compared with 7 percent). While the survey highlights the potential of online tools for positively engaging young people, it also raises some concerns about young adult social media use.

Disparities in Mental Health Treatment Seeking

New research shows minority college students are less likely than white students to seek mental health services or have their problems diagnosed and treated. In a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Boston University School of Public Health researchers found significant disparities in mental health treatment across race/ethnicity. The researchers used data from 43,375 undergraduate and graduate students at 60 institutions that participated in the Healthy Minds Study survey from 2012 to 2015. The participants included 13,412 students of color, who self-identified as African American, Latinx, Asian/Asian American, Arab/Arab American, or multiracial. The study found that among college students with clinically significant mental health problems, half of white students received treatment in the past year, compared to only one-quarter of African American and Asian students, and one-third of Latinx students. Only 21 percent of African American students with a mental health problem had received a diagnosis, compared with 48 percent of their white peers.

Researchers found that attitudes related to mental health treatment vary significantly and help to explain the study’s primary findings. According to the study, many students of color deny they need help or opt to deal with the issues themselves.  Asian/Asian Americans had the lowest levels of perceived need for mental health treatment, with only 47 of those with a mental health problem believing they needed help. And 23 percent of Asian/Asian Americans and 35 percent of Asian international students reported stigma towards mental health. According to the study, while Arab and Arab-American students reported the highest prevalence of mental health issues (53 percent compared to 42 percent overall), they had the lowest levels of knowledge about mental health. Only 52 percent of Arab/Arab American students reported that they knew where to go for mental health services, compared to 70 percent for white students. Lead author Sarah Lipson noted that students of color face many barriers to college persistence and have lower graduation rates than white students. “Understanding and addressing the mental health needs of racially diverse students is essential to supporting their success and creating equity in other dimensions, including persistence and retention,” Lipson says. To that end, a new component of the Healthy Minds Study was launched this year, measuring issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion, discrimination, sense of belonging, and identity formation.

High Level of Need for Mental Health Services Globally

A new study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology examines the prevalence of major depression, anxiety disorders, mania, panic disorders, and substance use among college freshman around the world. Researchers analyzed data from the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health International College Student Initiative, which surveyed almost 14,000 students from 19 colleges in eight countries (Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain, United States). They found that 35 percent of the respondents reported symptoms consistent with at least one mental health disorder at some point in their life, while 31 percent reported challenges within the 12-month period prior to taking the survey. Major depressive disorder was the most common, followed by generalized anxiety disorder. The high level of need for mental health services implied by these results represents a major challenge to higher education institutions and governments. According to lead author Randy Auerbach, “While effective care is important, the number of students who need treatment for these disorders far exceeds the resources of most counseling centers, resulting in a substantial unmet need for mental health treatment among college students.” Previous research suggests that only 15 to 20 percent of students seek services at their college’s counseling center, which in many cases are already overtaxed. Auerbach suggests that students seek out internet resources, saying, “Internet-based clinical tools may be helpful in providing treatment to students who are less inclined to pursue services on campus or are waiting to be seen.”

Mental Health Clubs Reduce Stigma

A new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that campus chapters of Active Minds, a national student-peer mental health organization, are associated with increased awareness of mental-health issues, reduced stigma and a rise in “helping behaviors.” In what they describe as the largest study of its kind, researchers ranked students' engagement with Active Minds on their campus -- low, medium or high for more than 1,000 students at 12 California colleges. Researchers also measured students’ knowledge and attitudes about mental health and experiences with psychological difficulties. At the end of the academic year, students who were in the low- and medium-engagement groups that became more involved with Active Minds had better knowledge of mental health issues and were less likely to believe stigmas about them.  They were also more likely to engage in helping behaviors with other students who were experiencing a mental health crisis (eg, providing emotional support, connecting others to services). Researchers suggested that organizations like Active Minds can complement more traditional programs and play an important role in improving the campus climate.

The Damage of Sleep Problems

A new study has quantified the damage that lack of sleep has on academic success among college students, finding that it is as detrimental as binge drinking or doing drugs. Using a data set of over 55,000 college students, researchers found that for every extra day a student experienced sleep problems, they were 10% more likely to drop a course, and their GPA declined by 0.02. The study also found that sleep disturbances had a greater effect on GPA than being diagnosed with depression or anxiety, and a greater effect on dropping a course than having a learning disability. Other factors like stress, binge drinking, marijuana and other illicit drug use, which typically receive more attention, were shown to have similar or smaller negative associations with academic success as compared to disturbed sleep. Approximately three quarters of students surveyed reported never having received information about sleep from their university.

Social Connectedness as Factor in Stress and Mental Wellbeing

British researchers recently investigated the impact of academic and non-academic stressors on mental health in university students, focusing on the role of social connectedness in protecting against mental distress. They found that while university-related stressors are moderate predictors of experiencing depression, general life stressors have been identified as more significant determinants of depressive symptoms. The evidence shows that relationship stressors are the most common source of stress reported by university students, and loneliness was the strongest overall predictor of poor mental health. Other stressors included: students having high expectations of themselves, and lacking important coping resources like time, sleep, support, and money. The researchers also found that identification with social groups in the university setting was protective against distress; social groups decrease feelings of loneliness, thereby decreasing the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and paranoia. The study highlights the benefits of establishing strong social connections while in college, and the importance of minimizing stress.

Post-Legalization Increases in Marijuana Legalization

According to a new study by researchers at Oregon State University, Oregon college students, including those under 21, were much more likely to use marijuana after recreational use became legal. Researchers analyzed data from the American College Health Association National College Health Assessment survey, and found that most of the increase in the post-legalization period was among students who reported using marijuana one to five times a month, not among heavy users. an anonymous voluntary survey that universities across the country distribute to a random sample of their students.