Study offers 7 ways to reach most at-risk college students

Research from North Carolina State and Clemson show the disparities among various groups around mental health impacts during the pandemic and how institutions can help.
By: | January 12, 2021
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Which college students are being most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

A comprehensive new study conducted by researchers at North Carolina State and Clemson universities shows  both the effects and risk factors coronavirus is having on the mental health of student populations across the country.

The report, which was published last week in the journal PLOS ONE, highlights that 45% of the more than 2,000 students surveyed across seven university campuses experienced high levels of psychological distress during the first months of the pandemic. Another 40% felt moderately impacted by it.

“The pandemic is problematic for everyone, and we know that it’s especially problematic for students who are eager to experience the unique social atmosphere that college life has to offer,” said co-author Lincoln Larson, associate professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at North Carolina State University. “COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into all of that. Our study found the pandemic is clearly taking a significant psychological toll on students.”

Women have been among the most groups affected most by thoughts of COVID-19, say researchers, along with Asian students. Students from lower-income backgrounds, those in poorer health and those who had contact with someone who had contracted the virus were also said to be in the high-risk group. Authors said those in the 18-24 age range were experiencing moderate stress, while those in older groups were experiencing less.

The psychological toll was being manifested in a variety of ways:

  • More than 20% reported a lack of motivation or that concentration was difficult
  • More than 17% had some feelings of anxiety
  • Nearly 15% said they are experiencing stress
  • And more than 13% said they are feeling isolated or alone

Though not among the top categories, there were several impacted areas that survey respondents also noted including boredom, entrapment, guilt, hygiene, finances and loss of work.

Authors said the results of the study mirrored those done in the U.S., China and Switzerland over the past year.

How colleges can address the problem

Matthew Browning, assistant professor and Director of Clemson University’s Virtual Reality and Nature Lab and other co-authors noted the dire aftershocks that have come since the pandemic hit – the “1,000% increase” in the calls to mental health hotlines, the rise in suicides and the substance abuse of those who had relapsed or turned to drug and alcohol for escape. All of those were being experienced at higher levels by those in the higher education arena.

“Nearly half of college students were at a severe handicap in terms of their quality of life, education and social relationships because of their mental health during the early stages of the pandemic,” Browning said.

Two of the risk factors that he and others highlighted were increased screen time and the lack of outdoor time for students. Those who sat in front of computers or devices for more than eight hours experienced high levels of psychological stress. Meanwhile, those who got outdoors for two or more hours were less likely to have experienced the same trauma as those who didn’t.

From those survey results and looking at scores of other research endeavors across the globe, authors noted 7 recommendations to higher education leaders in their report:

  1. Get outdoors – “green time vs. screen time”. When colleges and universities can foster healthy, safe initiatives on campus, it can be a game-changer for students. Many institutions turned to outdoor spaces for a variety of activities, including some classes, during last spring and summer and should continue to explore those options as the weather improves.
  2. Be transparent with cases, numbers and risks with the student population. Students who know real-time statistics are less likely to experience the highest levels of stress. Dashboards and updates through social media are the best ways to reach various groups.
  3. Promote mental health initiatives on campus. Researchers note the success that universities such as Kentucky, Northeastern and Connecticut have had in launching campuswide programs around exercise and wellness that have lowered stress and boosted group participation.
  4. Improve your reach. Offer forums for discussion, send text and email messages, pepper social media with positive messages and most of all, promote programs across multiple channels on campus mental health offerings.
  5. Focus on the positive. Colleges and universities that can allay fears and offer programming and outreach that gets students to find “silver linings” will lead to better outcomes. Researchers suggest the importance of adapting the mindsets of students to “stress-related growth” and “toughening” rather than one of weakness.
  6. Create spaces for students to connect. Many have lost the ability to interact face-to-face so it is important for institutions to bridge those gaps by offering “podcasts, virtual movies and trivia nights.”
  7. Don’t discount remote learning. Though it is the goal of every institution to have all students back in face-to-face environments, some might not feel comfortable with it, and it may just not be safe. Offering a blend of learning options can ease some of the stress of those concerned about contracting the virus.