How COVID-19 Has Affected College Students’ Mental Health

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Key Takeaways

  • Many studies show that college students’ mental health has been greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Although all students’ experiences are unique, many students have dealt with moving back home, a lack of breaks in the semester, and pressure to be productive. 
  • It’s okay to prioritize your mental health over schoolwork.

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health. According to many recent studies and firsthand accounts across the country, college students are not exempt.

While all students’ experiences are unique, some may find comfort knowing that they are not alone in the stressors they are facing. Research done on college student mental health is shedding light on how they have been mentally impacted by COVID-19 laden school years.

Science Shows Students Are Stressed

According to a Journal of Medical Internet Research study, just over 71% of the 195 interviewed college students from a Texas university indicated that they had experienced increased stress and anxiety due to COVID-19.

They noted that their stress stemmed from worries about their own health, the health of their loved ones, irregular sleeping habits, decreased socialization due to social distancing, difficulty concentrating, and concerns about their academic performance. 

Anna Kittrell, Student at Louisiana State University

With no breaks in the semester, school has felt like a non-stop, brain-sucking machine.

— Anna Kittrell, Student at Louisiana State University

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the mental health impact on just over 69,000 French university students (participants were primarily female and in their first year). They found a high prevalence of severe self-reported mental health symptoms. Researchers suggested that not only is student mental health a public health issue, but that it has “become even more critical in the context of a pandemic, underlining the need to reinforce prevention, surveillance, and access to care.”

Another study focused on undergraduate students in Northern New Jersey. A total of 162 students answered the survey, and participants were primarily non-white females.

It found that students struggled with high mental health distress and multiple academic and daily difficulties. People who had trouble focusing academically and had lost their jobs had higher levels of depression. Higher anxiety was common among non-freshmen and students who spent an hour plus per day searching for COVID-19 information. Females, students who couldn’t focus on academics, and those who said they struggled to get medicine and cleaning supplies all had higher levels of perceived stress.

How Some Students Are Coping

It’s clear that increased stress and anxiety has been prominent among college students across the country. Much like the varied response from schools across the nation, students are handling the atypical fall semester in their own ways. For some, that means always having something to do and for others, it means taking more time for self-care. Four students shared their stories of how they adjusted to pandemic-life.

Back Home Again

Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, Megan Boyles, a second year student pursuing her bachelor's in film and television at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), fell in love with the Georgia school when she first toured. While Boyles had been living in Savannah pre-pandemic, COVID-19 sent her back home to complete her semester fully online, which has both positively and negatively impacted her mental health. 

“I am very independent and started creating a life for myself at SCAD, and then I felt like that was taken away from me when I came back home,” she said. “I am happy I have my family to talk to and people I can hug and high five because there are parts of this pandemic that have caused me a lot of anxiety and sadness.”

Academically, Boyles said her motivation has remained high and she’s been able to maintain her GPA. While she has felt a need to be productive, she also understands that it’s okay to take a break and has allowed herself more time to relax.

“This pandemic can cause spells of low energy and being unmotivated,” she said. “It is important to remember that your value is not based off your productivity.”

Having a set schedule has given Boyles a sense of purpose back, she said. She has been able to engage in meaningful conversations via her Zoom classes, which helps to distract her from other stressors in her life. 

“For such a long time, I was stressed and mad at the world because of my friends and family members who continued being unsafe, as well as the rude comments about masks and this pandemic that would be (and still are) expressed to me at work,” Boyles said. “I have lost respect for a lot of my family members because of their actions during this pandemic and their harsh words about those who have passed on because of this virus.”

She continued: “I understand that in-person interaction has an effect on people and their happiness, but in my mind, it is a small price to pay for the safety of those I love … taking actions to stay home and wear a mask are signs that we care about our neighbors and their health.”

Adjusting to Online Learning

Miles Hood is a first year graduate student pursuing his masters in business administration from Rochester Institute of Technology. He has adjusted to online learning, but not because he wanted to.

“This semester has wrecked and rebuilt how I approach everything,” Hood said. “I prefer totally in-person over any [other] mode, [and] I feel like the shortened semester puts a rush on teachers until they feel as if they couldn't teach. They more or less reviewed new topics and that made it hard for me to feel like I was succeeding for most of the semester.”

For a while, Hood said he was unmotivated, didn’t enjoy his graduate program, and overall felt out of place. After a few therapy sessions, he regained some of his motivation and excitement toward his dream of becoming a sports journalist.

Socially, Hood identifies as an extrovert. He is outgoing, loves to laugh with both friends and strangers. He enjoys going to different bars and restaurants, trying interesting foods—his original goal was to become the “Black Gordon Ramsay,” he said—and traveling the country.

“COVID has made that entirely impossible. It has also changed my personality to an extent. I value hanging out with friends more than I ever did before,” he said.

C’s Get Degrees

In order to discourage travel, many colleges and universities canceled some or all planned breaks for the fall semester. Anna Kittrell, a second year chemical engineering major at Louisiana State University, lives just off-campus and has been taking classes remotely. She noted that the lack of time off has made her feel drained and eager for classes to end. 

“With no breaks in the semester, school has felt like a non-stop, brain-sucking machine,” she said.

While normally an A/B student, Kittrell has struggled with motivation and taken on the mindset “C’s get degrees.” She said overall, she hasn’t felt pressure from her professors—who have mostly been understanding and accommodating—to be more productive this semester. 

However, online learning has proven challenging for Kittrell as someone who learns better in-person and with a more hands-on approach. 

“My professors don’t work through example problems in class,” Kittrell said. “They put a slide on a powerpoint with the problem already worked out and then speed through the explanation of their work. In STEM classes, I learn best by working through the problems with my professors, so I can understand where all of the numbers and equations are coming from and what they mean.”

Kittrell has adjusted the expectations she has for herself since figuring out that online learning isn’t for her. Had she not been in a good place mentally heading into the semester, she said her lower academic performance might have affected her more than it has.

As an introvert, Kittrell hasn’t been too impacted by the inability to partake in group social activities. She said originally, she wanted to step out of her comfort zone this semester by going to more bars, restaurants, and parties. Instead, Kittrell has taken the time to focus on bettering herself.

“The pandemic forced me to dive into the things that I didn’t like about myself and confront the things that made me unhappy because I spend so much time alone,” she said. “My mental state is honestly the best it has ever been because I have spent the last few months choosing to only do things that make me happy.”

Pressure to Be Productive

There is an unspoken pressure to be hyper-productive to make up for time missed due to the pandemic. 

During the first few months of the pandemic, Abigail Bennethum, a third year public relations and business communications major at University of Northern Iowa, took on a full-time job and two online courses. She said she felt like she needed to do something to distract herself and keep her busy, and having her work to lean on helped a lot. 

“I feel so much more urgency to get everything done,” Bennethum said. “When I get super freaked out or have anxiety, I just try to slow down, turn my brain off, or take a bath … taking these little steps of self-care have really helped me understand I don’t need to freak out all the time.”

Megan Boyles, Student at Savannah College of Art and Design

It is important to remember that your value is not based off your productivity.

— Megan Boyles, Student at Savannah College of Art and Design

At first, Bennethum appreciated the additional time quarantine freed up for her to do her work. But as a more extroverted person, the prolonged time without seeing her friends or extended family “brought a looming sad feeling” over her, especially when her campus housing shut down and she had to pack up and move home.

This semester, Bennethum is back to living near campus. When her roommates contracted COVID-19, she said it strained their relationships while they navigated the difficulties of trying not to contract the virus herself. Ultimately, she said she thinks the experience made all of them more cautious.

Bennethum’s courses have been a blend of online synchronous, online asynchronous, and in-person classes. She enjoys the fact that she can do most of her work and classes at her own pace. The professors, administrators, and faculty at her university have done a good job of balancing safety and normality, she said.

“I do not think I have ever seen students and professors connect this well,” she said. “Some would say the opposite, but my professors have gone above and beyond and are consistently attentive to emails and responding to questions. I think they are trying to make up [for and] go above what they did before since there is limited time and there are more barriers.”

Finishing the Semester Strong

As the semester comes to a close, many students are looking forward to the time off that winter break brings while also anticipating going back home.

It’s important to get tested before heading back home and take precautions, such as always wearing a mask when you’re in public (regardless of state mandates), consistently washing your hands, and getting a flu shot as soon as possible to help prevent additional sicknesses.

What This Means For You

Although next semester will likely hold similar challenges as this one, it’s important to prioritize your mental health above all else. 

“This semester has been full of new experiences and new challenges,” Kittrell said. “School is important, but it is not the most important thing in the world. Prioritize your mental and physical health.

Remember that you are not alone; there are people all over the country and even the world that are experiencing the same things as you are. Take all the time you need to focus on things that make you happy, and don’t let these past few months determine the path for your future. Things will start to look up soon.”

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