Reports of sexual assault and mental health issues spike at UMN

University students report highly increased levels of anxiety, depression and sexual assault, according to a new study.

Lew Blank

University of Minnesota students are reporting a surge in sexual assault and depression on campus, with a nearly 30 percent increase in reports of sexual assault and mental health conditions since 2015, a study found.

The College Student Health Survey, released last week, found a substantial increase at the University in nearly all forms of mental health issues and sexual assault since the last survey was released three years earlier. However, some administrators see this as a positive sign that students are feeling more comfortable reporting the mental health and sexual assault issues that are affecting them.

Mental health reports on the rise

Between 2015 and 2018, the percentage of University students with a mental health diagnosis rose from 33 percent to 42 percent, according to the survey. The issue especially affected female students at the University, with about half saying they’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition during their lifetimes.

The majority of students reporting mental health issues cited anxiety, depression and panic attacks — each of which are on the rise from previous years — as the causes of their diagnoses.

These findings, however, are not as worrisome as they may initially seem, said John Finnegan, the dean of the School of Public Health. A major reason for the increase is that more students are seeing past the stigma that mental health issues are a “moral failure,” and as a result are feeling more comfortable with reporting mental health conditions and seeking help than ever before, he said.

“[With] Generation Z and millennials … there’s a whole lot less stigma to dealing with mental health issues,” he said. “I look at that as a real plus.”

However, there are also indicators that students are actually experiencing worse symptoms of depression, anxiety and other negative mental health outcomes, Finnegan said. 

This uptick might be caused by financial factors like student debt and family matters such as divorce. It could also be due to social media, which can make students feel isolated and jealous of their peers, said Gary Christenson, chief medical officer of Boynton Health. 

“For some people who may have a tendency towards anxiety and depression, [social media may] depict a world in which all of their friends are doing a whole hell of a lot better than they are,” Finnegan said. “You’re constantly comparing.”

Another potential cause of the jump in mental health conditions is that students have experienced a significant decrease in sleeping hours. The number of students who reported sleeping for an inadequate number of hours most nights of the week increased by nearly 50 percent.

An increase in reports of sexual assault

The survey also found a substantial increase in reports of sexual assault, with about 39 percent of women and around 16 percent of men at the University saying they have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. 

Eighty-two percent of female students reported being sexually harassed. The most common perpetrators of sexual harassment that University students cited were fellow students.

Dave Golden, the director of public health at Boynton, said he was anticipating these results, as data from The Aurora Center and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action were showing an increase in student reports of sexual assault. This heightened level of reporting may be caused by an increase in sexual assault, but it is also likely that sexual assault was underreported in previous years, Golden said.

“The data that we’re seeing now and in the past two years are more accurate numbers of what has been going on for quite a long time,” said Katie Eichele, the director of the Aurora Center.

A stronger understanding of how to identify sexual assault is a main reason for this increase, Eichele said. 

Advocacy campaigns and the #MeToo movement may also have a positive effect on increasing reports of sexual assault, as they can make victims feel more empowered to report the non-consensual acts, Finnegan said.

“There is a cultural shift that says, ‘no, I don’t have to be a victim of this stuff. I can report this stuff and something will happen,’” he said.