COVID-19 pandemic made U.S. college students’ mental health worse

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused the mental health of U.S. college students to plummet, a new study shows.

Students most at risk of mental health challenges stemming from the pandemic include women, Asians, students under age 25, those in poor health, those who knew somebody with COVID-19 and lower-income students, researchers report January 7 in PLOS ONE.

Even before the emergence of the novel coronavirus, U.S. college students struggled with depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders at higher rates than the general population. Many college students are grappling with a new social environment, struggling to figure out their careers and worrying about finances, says Matthew Browning, an environmental psychologist at Clemson University in South Carolina.

To assess how the pandemic is impacting student mental health, Browning and colleagues surveyed more than 2,500 students from seven public universities across the United States last spring when the pandemic was ramping up. Study participants ranked statements about their emotional state, preoccupation with COVID-19, stress and time use. Based on total scores, researchers classified the students as having experienced high, moderate or low levels of emotional distress and worry. The researchers note that they did not use standardized screening tools for disorders such as anxiety and depression, but instead zoomed in on mental health stressors arising directly from the pandemic (SN: 3/29/20).

About 85 percent of the students surveyed experienced high to moderate levels of distress, Browning’s team found — about 45 percent were highly impacted and about 40 percent were moderately impacted. Those who reported low levels of distress were more likely to be white and spend two or more hours outdoors.  

Certain factors put some students at greater risk of feeling highly distressed. Women were twice as likely to fall into that group, versus the moderate or low groups, while Asians were 30 percent more likely. Spending eight or more hours in front of computer, smartphone or television screens also increased risk.    

Colleges and universities must meet students’ basic safety and psychological needs before true learning can occur, Browning says. “We need to address students’ mental well-being before we think about the best way to deliver online classes during COVID.”

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