Decreased wellbeing of first-year university students during the initial COVID-19 lockdown

1. First year university students in the United States reported sustained behavioral, emotional, and attention problems during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. Participants who engaged in a university wellness program experienced fewer attention problems during the spring 2020 COVID-19 lockdown.

Evidence Rating Level: 2 (Good)

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in school closures and online learning at the majority of post-secondary institutions in North America during the spring 2020 semester. Further, because the majority of first year undergraduate students are in their late adolescence, they are especially vulnerable to experience neurodevelopmental disruption. This prospective study was the first to explore the emotional and behavioral impact of a global pandemic in this population. Students between the ages of 18- to 25-years-old enrolled in their first year at the University of Vermont at the beginning and end of their spring semester in 2020 were included. Exclusion criteria included students with phones that were incompatible with the questionnaire application. Assessments included a questionnaire on student responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, daily wellness assessments, and the Brief Problem Monitor (BPM) which evaluated attention as well as likelihood to internalize problems.

576 participants completed both baseline and follow-up BPM and COVID-19 response assessments. Approximately 67% of participants were enrolled in a university wellness program. Students who were confident in the government’s response to COVID-19 (31.6%) were more likely to be older or enrolled in a university wellness program. At follow-up assessment, students reported an increase in attention problems and externalizing problems. Participants enrolled in a wellness program were also less likely to experience increased attention problems at follow-up. This study was subject to limitations which should be taken into consideration. For example, it did not account for selection bias, extent of involvement in wellness programs, and did not have an age-matched control group. Nonetheless, the results of the present study suggest that university student behavioral and emotional wellbeing was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which may be partially mitigated with the support of university wellness programs.

Click to read the study in Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

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