How COVID-19 Has Affected College Students’ Mental Health

girl looking stressed

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Key Takeaways

  • Many studies show that college students’ mental health was greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Although all students’ experiences are unique, many students dealt with moving back home, a lack of breaks in the semester, and pressure to be productive during a time of uncertainty.
  • It’s always okay to prioritize your mental health over schoolwork, even as life slowly returns to normal.

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 were not exempt.

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

Studies 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 experienced increased stress and anxiety due to COVID-19.

Their stress stemmed from worries about their own health and the health of their loved ones, irregular sleeping habits, decreased socialization, difficulty concentrating, and concerns about their academic performance. 

Anna Kittrell, Student at Louisiana State University

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

— Anna Kittrell, Student at Louisiana State University

Another study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at the mental health impact of the pandemic on just over 69,000 French university students (participants were primarily female and in their first year). It found a high prevalence of severe, self-reported mental health symptoms.

While student mental health is always a public health issue, researchers suggests it became "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, primarily non-white females, answered the survey. The results showed 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 Coped

It’s clear that increased stress and anxiety were common among students enrolled in college during the early months of the pandemic. Much like the varied response from schools across the nation, students handled the atypical school semesters in their own ways. For some, that meant always having something to do, and for others, it meant 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 impacted her mental health positively and negatively.

“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 on your productivity.”

Having a set schedule gave Boyles her sense of purpose back, she said. She was able to engage in meaningful conversations via her Zoom classes, which helped 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 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 was a first-year graduate student pursuing his masters in business administration from Rochester Institute of Technology when the pandemic first hit. He shared his experience as a new grad student who had to transition to online learning.

“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 travel the country.

“COVID 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 2020 semester. Anna Kittrell, a second year chemical engineering major at Louisiana State University, lived just off-campus and had been taking classes remotely. She noted that the lack of time off left her feeling 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 struggled with motivation and adopted the mindset “C’s get degrees.” She said overall, she didn't feel pressure from her professors—who were mostly understanding and accommodating—to be more productive that semester. 

However, online learning proved challenging for Kittrell, 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 the numbers and equations are coming from and what they mean.”

Kittrell adjusted the expectations she had for herself after figuring out that online learning wasn'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 wasn't too impacted by the inability to partake in group social activities. She said originally, she had planned to step out of her comfort zone by going to more bars, restaurants, and parties. Instead, Kittrell took the unexpected free 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 the 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. 

As she explained, “I feel so much more urgency to get everything done. 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.

Eventually, Bennethum returned to living near campus. When her roommates contracted COVID-19, she said it strained their relationships while they navigated the difficulties of isolation and quarantine. Ultimately, she said she thinks the experience made all of them more cautious.

Bennethum’s courses offered a blend of online synchronous, online asynchronous, and in-person classes. She enjoyed the fact that she could 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 fall 2020 semester drew to a close, many students looked forward to time off for winter break, while also anticipating going back home.

Many were mindful to get tested before heading back home and took proper precautions, like wearing a mask in public (regardless of state mandates), consistently washing their hands, and getting a flu shot as soon as possible to help prevent additional sicknesses.

What This Means For You

While public spaces continue to open up, school is still likely to look different from it was pre-pandemic. It is still important for college students to prioritize their mental health above all else. 

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 as life slowly returns to normal. Take all the time you need to focus on things that make you happy and don’t let these past several months determine the path for your future. Things will look up soon.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cayla Cassidy
Cayla Cassidy is a former associate editor for Verywell Family. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the Rochester Institute of Technology and is passionate about all things divorce, nutrition, and communication.