Study gauges psychological impact of COVID-19 pandemic on university students

January 13, 2021

More than half of all university students in the United States have experienced high levels of psychological impact from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Matthew Browning of Clemson University, US, and colleagues.

University students are increasingly recognized as a psychologically vulnerable population, suffering from higher levels of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and disordered eating compared to the general population. Moreover, college students have been among the most strongly affected by COVID-19 because of uncertainty regarding academic success, future careers and social life during college, among other concerns.

In the new study, researchers collected data on 2,534 students from seven U.S. universities using web-based questionnaires carried out between mid-March and early-May 2020. The sampling population varied between universities, in some cases spanning all undergraduate and graduate students and in other cases limited to students enrolled in particular college or courses. Sociodemographic factors were self-reported and questions on the impacts of COVID-19 on students included both open-ended and multiple-choice items.

Respondents were 61% female, 79% non-Hispanic Whites and 20% graduate students. All students surveyed reported being negatively impacted by the pandemic in some way, and 59% of respondents experienced high levels of psychological impact. Being female, non-Hispanic Asian, in fair/poor health, of below-average family income, or knowing someone infected with COVID-19 was associated with higher levels of psychological impact. Students who were non-Hispanic White, of higher socioeconomic status, or spent at least two hours a day outside had lower levels of psychological impact. The authors recommend that, based on the results, university administrators should take aggressive, proactive steps to support the mental health and educational success of their students during the pandemic to prevent long-term consequences on their health and education.

The authors add: "Certain demographic groups were at higher risk of mental health issues than others. Individuals more likely to be in the high risk group were women, younger students, students with pre-existing health conditions, and students who knew someone infected with COVID-19. Lower-income students and Asian students also appeared to be at higher risk. Certain lifestyle factors might influence risk of mental health issues too. For example, students who spent 8+ hours a day engaged in "screen time" were likely to experience higher levels of psychological impacts, while students who engaged in 2+ hours of "outdoor time" were more likely to be in the low risk group. In addition to concerns about physical health and transmission risks, universities need to acknowledge the significant toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on the mental health of college students. And they need to allocate time and resources to address it. We have to be creative to address this unique and unprecedented problem."
-end-
Citation: Browning MHEM, Larson LR, Sharaievska I, Rigolon A, McAnirlin O, Mullenbach L, et al. (2021) Psychological impacts from COVID-19 among university students: Risk factors across seven states in the United States. PLoS ONE 16(1): e0245327. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0245327

Funding: The author(s) received no specific funding for this work.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available article in PLOS ONE: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0245327

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