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Leadership Development, Personal Growth, The Science of Leadership

How Mental Health Is Impacting Student Retention

There are many reasons for a student to drop out of college or postpone their graduation. The largest of which is also one of the most overlooked, which is mental health. 

In 2022, many colleges are feeling the effects of what some are calling a full-on mental health crisis that’s been exacerbated by an ongoing pandemic, which has brought considerable attention to how stress can impact student success and retention

This week in The Science of Leadership, we explore the connection between mental health and student retention, and how leaders and leadership training can help students succeed in an uncertain world. 

The Current State of Student Well-Being

Before we jump into how mental health and retention rates intersect, some background is required. Across all campuses, students are currently struggling, but mental health has been a rising concern for years.

Let’s work backward, starting with the impacts brought on by COVID-19.

Discussing how college student mental health was affected by COVID-19

Student Mental Health and Covid-19

A recent report from TimelyMD—a telehealth company that focuses on higher education—asked over 1,600 students between the ages of 18 and 29 to assess the current state of mental health on their campuses. 

The results were bleak:

  • 88 percent said they believe there’s a mental health crisis on campuses nationwide
  • 51 percent said they’re more stressed in 2022 than they were in 2021
  • 64 percent said they intend on seeking support for their mental health
  • 70 percent said they’re experiencing emotional distress from COVID-19

The study also found that women (76 percent) and non-binary students (81 percent) were impacted the most by COVID-related stress. 

Researchers at Brown University found similar results in 2021. After analyzing data from 200 students, the team found that students closer to graduating faced increases in anxiety (60.8 percent), feelings of loneliness (54.1 percent), and depression (59.8 percent).

And these are just a sampling of what’s out there. Researchers are still hard at work analyzing the true impact COVID-19 has had on student well-being but the outcomes are always the same: the pandemic has seriously struck a blow to student mental health.

Mental health was already an issue pre-pandemic

What makes these studies even more troubling is that students were already extremely stressed before the pandemic took hold. 

In 2019, a study by the American Council on Education (ACE) found that one in three students “meet the criteria for a clinically significant mental health problem—this translates to nearly 7 million students nationwide.”

Going back even further, a report from 2018 analyzed data from 70,000 students at over 100 colleges, finding that “twenty percent of those students had considered suicide, and almost 10 percent had attempted it. The results were even more stark among LGBTQ students and students of color,” reports EVERFI in The Chronicle

Deloitte found that rates of major depression on campus doubled from 2009 to 2019 from 8 percent to 18 percent and 13 percent of students reported seriously considering suicide in 2019.

It stands to reason that the increased stress of the pandemic is stacking on top of stress that was already there. If true, this means that today’s college students are more stressed than ever before

So what impact does that have on retention and student success?

How does college student mental health affect student retention?

The Connection Between Mental Health and Retention

A few studies have already started looking into this issue, though many were conducted pre-pandemic. Let’s take a look at those first. 

In 2019, the same ACE study mentioned above examined the link between mental health and student success, finding that students with poor mental health are more likely to have lower GPAs, take longer to complete a degree, or drop out entirely.

A Danish study from 2016 found that men with poor mental health were five times more likely to drop out. The team even went further, saying that mental health could be used to actually predict if men would drop out. 

If we look back even further, a 2012 study by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) found that roughly 64 percent of college students with mental health issues drop out.

The Pandemic Impact

With all of these studies linking poor mental health to lower retention rates, it’s fairly safe to conclude that the pandemic has made matters worse.

While studies are still underway to shine a light on exactly how much the pandemic’s impact on mental health has affected dropout rates, a few have already begun making waves with some shocking statistics. 

One of the biggest has been the continued reporting by the National Student Clearinghouse’s Research Institute, which regularly monitors enrollment rates. While these figures don’t specifically apply to mental health, they do examine how COVID-19 has led to significant declines in enrollment and dropout rates. 

“Of the 2.6 million students who started college in fall 2019, 26.1 percent, or roughly 679,000, didn’t come back the next year,” The Guardian’s Matt Krupnick reported on the findings.

“That was an increase of two percentage points over the previous year and the highest share of students not returning for their sophomore year since 2012. The dropout spike was even more startling for community college students like Izzy, with an increase of about 3.5 percentage points.”

The National Student Clearinghouse also reported drops in total enrollment for the last two years. As stated in January 2022: “Compared to fall 2020, total undergraduate enrollment declined by 3.1 percent or 465,300 students, for a total two-year decline during the COVID-19 pandemic of 6.6 percent, or 1,025,600 students since fall 2019.”

One of the best studies into the actual question of how much COVID-related stress has impacted retention comes from The Healthy Minds Network (HMN), which according to SignalVine, found that students with mental health concerns were twice as likely to leave an institution without graduating.

The study also found that 25 percent of students who showed symptoms of mental health issues dropped out. Only nine percent of students without mental health concerns did so.

Retention and Student Mental Health: Key Takeaways

We’ve covered many different studies so far this week, but the throughline is simple: poor mental health leads to lower retention rates

This has been an upward trend for years, but the pandemic added more fuel to the fire, causing thousands of additional dropouts and even problems with enrollment, which has seen the biggest decline in the last 50 years.

These unsettling points lead to the question of what administrators and university leaders can do to help students improve their mental health.

NSLS Leadership Insights

One of the first things administrators need to understand is that they don’t have to be mental health experts to help their students. This type of thinking can cause campus leaders to simply not address the issues they see because they feel powerless.

Instead, it can be beneficial to understand how to reach out to students in need and then refer them to professionals who can help. One of the ways to do this, according to SignalVine, is using the “V-A-R method” of communication. 

V-A-R, which was developed by mental health nonprofit Active Minds, stands for “validate, appreciate, refer.” This method allows you to validate the student's feelings, appreciate their courage to come forward, and refer them to an action that is beneficial and helpful. The referral stage allows administrators and leaders to point the student in the right direction without giving concrete advice. 

V-A-R is a simple way to remember how to actively listen and allow students who may struggle with their mental health to feel heard and supported. Please be aware, Active Minds makes it clear that V-A-R should NOT be used in the midst of a crisis. For that, professionals should be brought in immediately.

Another great way to increase retention and decrease stress is to establish strong communities on campus (or online) where students can come together to support one another. 

Finally, one of the biggest things leaders can do is to start investing in programs and resources for students to utilize if they’re struggling with mental health.

As the pandemic goes on, the true toll it takes on college admissions, retention, and student success is becoming increasingly clear. Right now, what we know is that students need support more than ever before.

The Science of Leadership Connects Cutting-Edge Leadership Research to the Real World

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, help is out there.

Ready to dig deeper? One of the best ways to decrease student stress is to learn how to reduce your own. Watch our webinar: Reduce Stress by Becoming a Self Advocate.

Want to learn more about how the pandemic has impacted students? Read our recent article: How the Pandemic Impacted Gen-Z’s Soft Skills

Have a burning question about any of the topics we’ve covered? Email us at We’d love to hear from you.