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Report Highlights COVID-19 Impact on College Students’ Mental Health

A new report found that one-third of college students reported emotional distress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The report, titled “Constant Stress Has Become the New Normal: Stress and Anxiety Inequalities Among U.S. College Students in the Time of COVID-19,” analyzed how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the mental health of college students across the nation.

Over 700 students from 374 colleges across the United States participated in the research, which began in April. A majority of the sample size also engaged in a follow-up survey in July.

Dr. Lindsay Till Hoyt

The data was broken down based on sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, gender and income.

“There was that hashtag going around that we are all in this together,” said Dr. Lindsay Till Hoyt, an assistant professor of psychology at Fordham University and co-author of this report. “In some ways we are, this is a global phenomenon. But the experiences are a lot more nuanced than that. Students are going to be experiencing different levels of stress and anxiety because of the pandemic. And that is what we are finding.”

For example, women alongside transgender and gender diverse students, experienced higher stress and anxiety levels compared to men, according to the report.

As colleges and universities shutdown in March, students returned home. In some cases, students were given additional caretaker and other household responsibilities such as assisting their siblings with their virtual school assignments.

“This kind of combination of experiencing the stress of transitioning to online learning on your own and these added stressors from the home environment like these additional responsibilities made it particularly difficult for women and might have contributed to some of these differences that we found,” said Neshat Yazdani, a fourth-year doctoral student at Fordham University and co-author of this report.

Other differences were seen among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students who encountered higher stress versus their heterosexual counterparts, the report noted.

Hoyt said this may be attributed to students losing access to mental health services such as on-campus counseling centers and peer support.

“A lot of students might be going home to less supportive environments,” she added. “I think that that transition home might have been especially difficult for the students who identify as LGBTQ, particularly if they don’t have supportive families at home or safe spaces or access to mental health services.”

Based on racial demographics, White college students faced the highest levels of emotional distress in April. However, Black and multiracial students were more heavily impacted in July, according to the research.

The report indicates that the shift may correlate to the disproportionate health effects of COVID-19 experienced by people of color as well as the impact of ongoing anti-Black violence.

Dr. Alison K. Cohen

Lastly, low-income students experienced higher stress levels compared to those considered high-income, the research found.

Changes to individual and household finances were among the stressors. Additionally, in some cases, students’ living situations took a toll on their mental health due to a lack of access to technology or a quiet and safe place to complete assignments.

“Some of these trends are not new,” said Elena Maker Castro, second-year doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-author of the report. “These disparities in mental health, particularly among women and gender diverse and sexual minority students, have been increasing over time. When we think about contextualizing and understanding this, it is not an isolated event. This is part of a larger narrative that we need to be considering.”

With many institutions facing budget cuts and enrollment decreases, Hoyt emphasized that mental health and social support related services should remain a priority on campus and recommended that students be their “best advocates.”

Dr. Alison K. Cohen, instructor in Stanford University’s Department of Epidemiology and Population Health and co-author of this report, said students’ stress specifically related to their higher education institution must be addressed.

“The examples participants provided included losing campus employment, needing to pay their institution to store their stuff while campuses were closed and being concerned about financial aid allocation being responsive to their quickly changing financial need,” she said.

Professors can offer support and build relationships with their students by conducting mental health check-ins at the beginning of class throughout the semester.

“[This will] help foster a sense of community and create some sort of collective community narrative, which is so hard to do in the online space,” said Castro. “I know everyone is always pressed for their content and making sure that certain topics are covered, but ultimately students don’t learn when they don’t feel humanized first.”

Hoyt added that the humanization element is especially important given how COVID-19 has further exacerbated existing inequalities.

“Thinking about how socio-political events are affecting students stress and focus at the time,” she said. “Being able to incorporate that into your teaching and how exactly how you treat students as people and not just as markers in your class. But to really make sure that they are being supported at multiple levels at the university.”

The Journal of Adolescent Health plans to publish this research in February.

Sarah Wood can be reached at swood@diverseeducation.com