95% of students feel mental health strains of pandemic

A new study shows the deep impact COVID-19 has had on students, including negative academic outcomes.

Colleges and universities have prioritized mental health resources throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. From telehealth to peer support services and expanded partnerships, institutions have showed increased compassion and care for students.

But even with the promise of vaccines and reopening plans being forged for the fall, those must continue, experts say, because students are still hurting.

A report released Monday from BestColleges.com shows that 95% of undergraduate students have had “negative mental health symptoms as a result of circumstances caused by COVID-19” and 97% have experienced some negative outcome at home as a result of the pandemic.

The startling statistics come from a survey done in late February and early March of more than 700 students across the U.S. who were enrolled at two-year or four-year institutions. More than half of them said those impacts were affecting both their classwork and social relationships.

The survey numbers mirror several other national studies done over the past few months, including two from national telehealth provider TimelyMD and the Healthy Minds Network. TimelyMD researchers noted that more than 70% of students polled said their academic work had been impacted.

“College years are a pivotal time for young adults as they pursue their chosen academic field and have the opportunity to gain independence and learn more about themselves,” said Dr. Melissa Venable, Education Advisor for BestColleges. “As schools make plans to return to normal operations this fall, they should do all they can to support students as they experience a range of mental health concerns.”

Far-reaching impacts

Not only have students largely had their connections broken during the pandemic – either because of the switch to virtual learning or because of the lack of mobility on and off campus – but they have also experienced firsthand the fallout of this devastating crisis.

More than 20% have lost either a friend or family member to COVID-19 and more than one-quarter have had their own finances impacted or saw their families’ finances dwindle, according to the BestColleges report.

All of those strains have led to a variety of negative outcomes for students, researchers said, including:

  • Social isolation, loneliness increased anxiety (45%)
  • Struggles with laziness, focus and routine (44%)
  • Loss of sleep (40%)
  • Decreased physical activity and unhealthy eating habits (39%).

Nearly half of students had on-campus traditions wiped out as well, including time spent at sporting events and in fraternities and sororities. That has led to further isolation and an increase in computer and device time.

Academic work also has suffered. Half of the respondents said they have struggled to finish homework assignments and a third said they are worried about their GPA being impacted. And nearly that same number said the shift to remote learning has affected their mental health in some way. Still, as the TimelyMD study noted, many students have appreciated the flexibility of virtual instruction, so institution leaders should keep that in mind as they further plan reopening strategies.

Students overwhelmingly indicated they have tried to deal with all the stresses themselves, according to the survey, by taking on new hobbies at home such as reading or enjoying time outdoors when they can. TimelyMD noted that more than 65% in their poll reached out for mental health help during the pandemic.

The Jed Foundation, which has partnered with 350 colleges and universities to improve student mental health, substance misuse and suicide, notes the importance of institutions to reach potential at-risk students early and provide them options for services. They say it is imperative that trainings happen for campus staff so they can continually meet the needs of students.

Colleges and universities might also consider expanding the number of trained counselors on campus as well as offering life skills courses to students. Getting staff and faculty on board with programs that the university provides – even having instructors address those options through their syllabus and simply being available to students – is also vital to overall student success.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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