Loyola Research Indicates First-year Students Experience Mental Health Declines

Courtesy of Loyola University ChicagoThe lab has shifted in recent years to intervention strategies aimed at improving student well-being.

Recent research by a Loyola lab shows first-year students tend to see a decline in their mental health during their first year of college which doesn’t stabilize until almost after their second year.

The research — which comes out of Loyola’s Improving Mental-health and Promoting Adjustment through Critical Transitions (IMPACT) lab in the College of Arts and Sciences — follows years of studies that indicates first- and second-year students in the U.S. experience mental health declines when transitioning to college.

Dr. Colleen Conley, an associate clinical psychology professor at Loyola and the IMPACT lab director, said the lab focused on the transition from adolescence to adulthood, a period known as “emerging adulthood.” She said the lab conducted surveys of Loyola students starting in their first year of college and at various points throughout their college careers. The surveys looked at various indicating factors for mental health. 

“Students in general experienced declines across the first year,” Conley said. “Those declines tended to continue into the second year, or at least not start recovering until after the second year.” 

Because of this research, Conely said the lab has shifted in recent years to intervention strategies aimed at improving student well-being. 

Research into intervention was presented at a recent webinar hosted by the IMPACT lab April 7. During the webinar, attendees were presented with research regarding wellness, taught various breathing exercises and received information on technology-based wellness strategies.

Conley said the lab is focused on giving students the tools to handle the stress college brings and recommended a variety of methods to combat the problem, including mindfulness, gratitude, deep breathing, relaxation and exercise. 

Conley said these exercises are especially important given the low number of students who seek mental health treatment compared to how many students exhibit signs of mental health issues. She said 33 percent of students experience depression and 31 percent experience anxiety, but only 10 percent go to the Wellness Center — Loyola’s medical clinic for students — for treatment. 

David deBoer, Loyola’s director of counseling for the Wellness Center, said nationally the rate at which students use college wellness centers is around 7-10 percent. At Loyola, the number has recently been closer to 10-11 percent of students using the Wellness Center for mental health counseling.

Carol Hundert, a Loyola PhD student studying clinical psychology who works in the IMPACT lab, spoke to The Phoenix about the lab’s research into how mindfulness exercises through the mobile app Headspace affected students experiencing depression. 

Although the study is ongoing, Hundert said preliminary data shows students who use the app showed improvements in their mental health compared to those who didn’t use it. 

“Comparing at the beginning of the study to the end of the study the people who were randomly assigned into the Headspace group are seeing improvements in a lot of things like depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms,” Hundert said. 

The IMPACT lab is also looking at how those in mentorship positions can help adolescents achieve mental health goals through app-based services, according to Maya Hareli and Sarah Broner, PhD students both studying clinical psychology. The program builds off previous research showing students didn’t use the apps when left on their own. 

“They’ll download them and after using it once or twice, they’ll kind of stop using it for various reasons,” Hareli said. 

Another study uses a similar framework and applies it to college students, using their academic advisors to help students achieve their goals, Broner said. She said this is because students already have a relationship with their advisors and meet with them often. 

“We’re trying to leverage this already existing relationship between a trusted mentor who is seen as having the resources, knowledge and skills to be able to connect students with mental health resources,” Broner said. 

Conley also said the lab is working with Loyola’s student advisors to recommend students go to the Wellness Center when they exhibit signs of mental health declines. 

These signs may include the typical symptoms of depression but also may involve any sudden changes in behaviors or sudden noticeable declines, according to deBoer. 

“What’s really important is noticing a marked shift or change in mood and behavior, from what is someone’s normal way of being in the world,” deBoer said. “A real kind of withdrawal or sense of communicated hopelessness. I think it’s important to look at when you know somebody pretty well and start to see real difference or erratic behavior.”

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