COVID-19 associated with significant mental health issues among college students in America

1. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 45.2% of college students experienced higher than average levels of emotional distress and worry time, with 40.4% experiencing moderate levels of these factors.

2. Those at higher risk of experiencing worse mental health include women, students aged 18-24, Asian students, students with below-average social class, students with fair or poor health, and students who know an individual with COVID-19.

Evidence Rating Level: 2 (Good)

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on people’s mental health, as evidenced by the 1000% increase in mental health hotline use in the United States, during April 2020. Although all populations have been affected, college students may be especially vulnerable, as even prior to the pandemic, they were reported to experience high levels of anxiety, depression, substance use issues, and other mental health concerns.. The current study aimed to expand prior single institution studies to examine the effect COVID-19 may have had on the mental health of college students in 7 different Universities. The study population included 2,534 students from Arizona, North and South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Montana. Participants were asked to fill out a survey containing open-ended questions on how COVID-19 has affected their behaviour, and quantitative questions measuring concepts such as negative emotion, preoccupation, stress, and worry. Data was collected on gender, age, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status (SES), and academic status (undergrad or graduate student). The results found that 45.2% of students were classified as high profile (experiencing higher than average levels of emotional distress and worry time), with 40.4% of students classified as moderate profile (moderate levels of both factors), and 14.3% classified as low profile. Furthermore, from the demographics analysis, women were identified as being more likely to be high profile (residuals = 8.02, p < 0.001), students aged 18 to 24 years old more likely to be moderate profile (RES = 3.81, p = 0.0013), Asian students were less likely to be low profile (RES = -3.42, p = 0.0076) compared to White students (RES = 2.98, p = 0.035), and those in a below-average social class were more likely to be high profile (RES = 3.38, p = 0.0065). In terms of lifestyle factors, individuals with fair or poor health were more likely to be high profile (RES = 5.90, p < 0.001), and those who knew someone infected with COVID-19 were more likely to be high profile (RES = 3.06, p = 0.013). Overall, this study demonstrated how prevalent poor mental health for college students is during the pandemic, and also identified certain groups as being higher risk than others, which underlies the urgency for public health services to address the mental health need in these populations.

Click to read the study in PLOSONE

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