The Need for Data: Mental Health During Unprecedented Times

Sarah Ketchen Lipson, Ph.D. / April 9, 2020

Unprecedented.

In recent weeks this word has risen to prominence in our collective lexicon. We are living in unprecedented times. Nothing is as it was before.

Now more than ever, we need data and evidence to guide our decisions and inform policies and programs.

This is true at all levels, including in higher education. Colleges and universities will need data in order to meet the needs of their students moving forward. But what will those needs be?

Pre-COVID, there were high and rising prevalence rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidality in college student populations.

Many referred to this as a campus mental health “crisis.” Data have and will continue to be essential in informing campus investments in student mental health.

When campus closures began in March, my colleagues and I began thinking about how the pandemic will impact student mental health. As is the new norm, we had only questions, no answers.

We quickly realized the opportunity to collect new data to measure the impact of the pandemic in college student populations, which include about 60% of all U.S. adolescents and young adults.

One of the most wonderful things about working in the field of college student mental health research is the partnerships and collaborations that my Healthy Minds colleagues and I have with other organizations across the country.

As we began developing new COVID-19 survey questions to add to the national Healthy Minds Study, we partnered with the American College Health Association, which will also be adding this set of questions to its National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA III).

Together, we came up with a set of about 10 new survey questions that will be added to the existing surveys for campuses that participate in the remainder of the spring 2020 semester.

With these new questions, we focused on measuring unique experiences related to the pandemic and campus closures, narrowing in on factors likely to vary significantly across students.

Ultimately the new questions fall into three categories:
the personal impact (symptoms/infection, economic, living situation, discrimination)
preventive behaviors and attitudes; and
perceived supportiveness of campus stakeholders.

The process of writing questions for immediate implementation into Healthy Minds and ACHA-NCHA III also resulted in the initial drafting of a longer survey “module” focused on COVID-19.

For fall 2020, we plan to offer a Healthy Minds survey module (about 25-30 questions) related to COVID-19, which campuses will be able to opt into. We welcome feedback and suggestions for this new survey module.

Sarah Ketchen Lipson is an Assistant Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and co-Principal Investigator of the national Healthy Minds Study: http://healthymindsnetwork.org/.

If you have ideas for research priorities related to mental health in college student populations during these unprecedented times, please email healthyminds@umich.edu.