Brandeis Magazine

Winter 2023/2024

Helping Students Navigate Depression and Anxiety

By Laura Gardner, P’12

Hannah Snyder wearing glasses and smiling at the camera

Hannah Snyder

College is a time of discovery, exploration, and personal growth. It can also be a time of great stress.

In fact, 25% of all undergraduates experience moderate to severe depression or anxiety. The number of students who seek treatment at university mental-health centers is growing at five times the rate of enrollment increases. Two-thirds of students who drop out of college leave for mental health reasons. Many who stay in school report mental health challenges that impede their academic performance.

Assistant professor of psychology Hannah Snyder is an expert on the period known as “emerging adulthood” — the years from age 18 to the mid-20s — when the brain develops strategies for coping with life’s complexities and uncertainties.

“It’s not adolescence, and it’s not full adulthood,” she says. “Young people are gaining independence, growing into their adult roles.”

Anxiety and depression peak during this period. Executive function — an umbrella term for the cognitive skills that enable  us to plan, manage time, focus, show self-control, and multitask — is not yet fully developed or automatic.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, with its perfect storm of stressors, proved an ideal time for Snyder and her research team to study depression and anxiety in college students. Within 10 days of Brandeis shuttering its campus in response to the pandemic, Snyder had won approval to launch a study of 450 students, including 150 at Brandeis (the rest were students at the University of Colorado Boulder, where Snyder’s collaborator is based).

Not surprisingly, the researchers found depression and anxiety spiked during the remote-learning period of the pandemic. About 40% of the students surveyed reported moderate to severe depression, and 70% reported moderate to severe anxiety, double the pre-pandemic rate.

“Social interactions with peers are huge during students’ college years,” says Snyder. “Losing this connection is much more severe for adolescents and emerging adults than it is for established adults.”

The study found that, during the pandemic, how students coped with stress — rather than the degree of the stress itself — was the strongest predictor of depression and anxiety. Students who reported having a harder time tolerating the uncertainty of the situation, those who engaged in catastrophic (worst-case scenario) thinking, and those who ruminated (got stuck in negative thought patterns) had significantly worse mental health.

Now Snyder is in the second year of a large study of how 480 students, equally divided between Brandeis and the University of Colorado Boulder, adapt to stress during their first two years of college. In particular, the researchers are examining how poor executive function operates as a risk factor for depression and anxiety.

“For example, you don’t plan ahead and study for an upcoming exam, so you do poorly on it, and now you’re struggling in your class,” Snyder says. “That’s a major stressor caused by poor executive function.”

The study is looking at how poor executive function interacts with reward sensitivity and threat sensitivity. Reward sensitivity is being on the lookout for potentially good things, like enjoyable social interactions or opportunities. Threat sensitivity is being on the lookout for potentially threatening things, like negative social evaluation by peers.

“Ultimately, if we can predict who’s most likely to develop different types of mental health problems, we can deliver targeted prevention and intervention early on,” says Snyder.

For generations, adulthood has been seen as beginning at age 18. But Snyder thinks there’s an advantage in believing that becoming an adult takes longer than that. Young people are given more time to build skills like flexibility and adaptability.

“It can be easy to look down on this generation for spending a longer time in an immature state,” she says. “But this can be a very adaptive strategy, especially when young people are preparing for a world that’s rapidly changing.”