College Students Speak Out About Health Care Needs

College students identify how pediatricians can help them prepare for the mental health challenges of college.

In January 2020, before the novel coronavirus began spreading throughout the United States and closing college campuses, a group of students at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill chose to study the health care needs of their peers. In April 2020, they submitted a blog post to the American Board of Pediatrics. With the pandemic revealing more critical needs and priorities, however, their submission was set aside.

Now, in recognition of Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, May 2–8, 2021, we share their blog post below. As we begin to emerge from the fog of the pandemic — and with the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among college students — the topic is more relevant than ever.

Guest post by Bradley Barefoot, Ashley Broadwater, Jillian Daly, Maren Garner, and Hope Motzenbecker

Many high school students who transition to college have no idea what to expect. Although they have never struggled with mental health issues in the past, they might find it to be their biggest challenge once on campus. To cope with these newfound struggles, unhealthy behaviors can arise, including binge drinking and the consumption of drugs.

"I feel like stress, anxiety and depression affect college students the most."As part of our public relations campaigns (capstone) course at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, we set out to learn how our peers care for their health. What are college students’ primary health concerns? How well are those concerns understood and cared for? What can pediatricians do to support college-age patients?

To get answers, we used two forms of data collection: 10 qualitative personal interviews and a quantitative online survey with 72 completed responses. We recruited participants via an online chat application and social media. Most participants were white (81.5%) and/or female (84.8%). The distribution was evenly spread among sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

Key Findings

  1. Anxiety, depression, and eating disorders were the most reported health concerns.
  2. Roughly a quarter of our participants still went to their pediatricians. Students still seeing their pediatricians cited receiving more personalized care and appreciated their pediatricians’ knowledge of their medical and family history. Some students felt more comfortable with their pediatricians because they had grown up with them.
  3. In direct contrast, some said their bond as children with their pediatrician was a hindrance to feeling comfortable when discussing mental and sexual health concerns. These students appreciated both the objectivity and helpfulness of campus health resources. In fact, most of our participants chose going to Campus Health instead, citing reasons such as convenience and cost.
  4. We were surprised to learn that many college students did not know they could continue seeing their pediatrician in their college years.


"I could see myself going back to my pediatrician if I needed someone who was more familiar with my past health issues."Based on our research and an understanding of our peers, we see an opportunity for pediatricians to better connect with college-age students. We want you to understand these issues so you can seek to become better trained to support the mental health concerns of your college-age patients and better connect with them to improve their overall mental and physical health.

While we truly understand that addressing students’ needs can be a complicated effort, here are a few things we think you can do to help incoming college students feel more prepared in the fall.

  1. Remind your high school patients that mental health is as real as physical, and it deserves the same attention.
  2. Inform them of the common signs of anxiety and depression because they might not recognize them if they arise.
  3. Assure them that you are still there for them; many think they have outgrown your services.
  4. Inform them about the importance of healthy habits and how they help with mental health.

These simple suggestions could make a huge difference in the lives of new college students. Too often, college students are unable to cope with the stresses they face and do not realize when it is time to focus on their mental health.

You made us feel safe when you gave us vaccinations, you watched us grow up, and you were the comforting face we saw during our critical developmental years. As patients, we have entered a new phase of life, and we hope that we can work together to improve health on college campuses and make college a healthier experience.

About the Authors

Bradley Barefoot, Ashley Broadwater, Jillian Daly, Maren Garner, and Hope Motzenbecker

Bradley Barefoot, Ashley Broadwater, Jillian Daly, Maren Garner, and Hope Motzenbecker were students in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill in the spring of 2020. They embarked on this project as part of their capstone course in the public relations curriculum. In addition to leadership from their course professor, Nori Comello, they were advised by Chris Perry, Acting Director of Communications for the American Board of Pediatrics.