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COVID-19 Shown to Heighten College Stress

New research finds that college students were more anxious and depressed during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 than they were during similar time frames in previous academic years.

Dartmouth researchers also found that physical activity, often used as to lessen anxiety and stress, has also declined dramatically during the public health crisis.

Researchers analyzed data from a mix of smartphone sensing and digital questionnaires among more than 200 students participating in a research program tracking mental health throughout their undergraduate years. Findings appear in in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

“COVID-19 had an immediate negative impact on the emotional well-being of the college students we studied,” said Dr. Jeremy Huckins, a lecturer on psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth. “We observed a large-scale shift in mental health and behavior compared to the observed baseline established for this group over previous years.”

Self-reported symptoms of depression and anxiety within the student research group spiked noticeably at the onset of COVID-19. At the time, major policy changes related to COVID-19 were also being put in place, including the request that students leave campus and the switch to remote learning.

These changes coincided with the end of classes and final exams, already one of the most stressful times for students in any academic term.

According to the study, anxiety and depression decreased slightly after the final exam period as students settled into shelter-in-place locations. This suggested some resilience in the face of COVID-19, but levels remained consistently higher than similar periods during previous academic terms.

A potential key factor is that unlike previous terms studied, sedentary time increased dramatically during this year’s spring break period.

“This was an atypical time for these college students. While spring break is usually a period of decreased stress and increased physical activity, spring break 2020 was stressful and confining for the students participating in this study. We suspect that this was the case for a large number of college students across the country,” said Huckins.

The study used StudentLife, a sensing app developed at Dartmouth, to collect information from student volunteers. StudentLife passively collects behavioral information from user’s smartphones such as duration of phone usage, number of phone unlocks, sleep duration, and sedentary time.

Data on depression and anxiety were collected using weekly, self-reported assessments also administered through the StudentLife app.

“This is the first time we have used sensor data from phones to give us unique behavioral insights into the reaction of students to the onset of the pandemic on a college campus,” said Dr. Andrew Campbell, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth and one of the lead researchers of the StudentLife study.

“We plan to further analyze how these students adjusted both physically and mentally during remote learning that leads on from this study.” In the research, the team also reported a connection between anxiety and COVID-19 news coverage.

The link between depression and news reporting was apparent, but not as strong. As news coverage intensified, there was an increase in sedentary behavior and a longer duration of phone usage. According to the study, the decrease in the number of locations visited was consistent with the social distancing and shelter-in-place policies implemented by local governments.

The study’s findings on the uptake of social distancing recommendations contrasts with other research of college students in which governmental social distancing policies were not followed. Findings in the current study are also contrary to media depictions of college-age students flouting social distancing recommendations during the spring break period.

“Many people wouldn’t expect college students to listen to social distancing orders, but these students did. We found that when social distancing was recommended by local governments, students were more sedentary and visited fewer locations on any given day,” said Huckins.

“Clearly the impact of COVID-19 extends beyond the virus and its direct impacts. An unresolved question is if mental health and physical activity will continue to degrade over time, or if we will see a recovery, and how long that recovery will take.”

Source: Dartmouth University

COVID-19 Shown to Heighten College Stress

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). COVID-19 Shown to Heighten College Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 28 Jul 2020 (Originally: 29 Jul 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 28 Jul 2020
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