Over 9 in 10 College Students Report Mental Health Impacts From COVID-19

Over 9 in 10 College Students Report Mental Health Impacts From COVID-19
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on April 11, 2021

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Statistically, young people run little risk of getting seriously sick with COVID-19. Yet the pandemic continues to hit college students hard, with depression, anxiety, and suicide rates on the rise.

According to a new BestColleges.com survey, 95% of college students have experienced negative mental health symptoms as a result of COVID-19-related circumstances. Almost half (48%) believe the mental health effects have directly affected their education.

The survey asked students whether they had experienced increased anxiety or depression, sadness or disappointment, higher stress levels, and other indicators of mental struggles as a result of the pandemic.

Nearly half (46%) of respondents reported feeling more isolated and lonelier. Additionally, 40% slept less, 39% worked out less and ate worse, and close to one-third (32%) experienced feelings of hopelessness.

An earlier BestColleges.com survey found that remote learning due to COVID-19 poses a threat to college students' mental health. Students are struggling online and mourn the loss of in-person contact with peers and professors.

The present survey of 702 college students, all of whom learned remotely for at least part of the past year, finds that school changes are just one piece of the emerging mental health puzzle.

College Students Struggle Socially During COVID-19

Nearly all students surveyed (97%) said that their lives outside of school had been impacted by the pandemic. Roughly half said changes include more time spent in front of screens (56%) and more time spent indoors (46%). Around 2 in 5 students noted that it's been harder to meet classmates (41%) and make friends (42%).

Many college students rely heavily on friends for emotional and academic support. The survey found that students were even more likely to consider friends part of their support system than they were parents or guardians (65% vs. 59%).

When friends are hard to come by, those support networks falter. Students who reported experiencing social isolation or loneliness this year were nearly 15% more likely to consider their friends part of their support system (79% vs. 65%).

More than half (54%) of college students believe COVID-19 circumstances have impacted their mental health, while just 16% disagree. Although the pandemic's mental health fallout boasts wide reach, not all students have felt its effects to the same degree.

First-year students are more likely than upper-level students to report COVID-19-related mental health issues, particularly when it comes to motivation and positive personal habits. Female students are much more likely than male students (60% vs. 45%) to report mental health effects brought about by pandemic-related circumstances.

Over a quarter (27%) of male students expect that the mental health effects spurred on by COVID-19 circumstances will not extend into the long term, whereas nearly half (48%) of female students believe they will.

Even Lacking Basic Needs, College Students Do Self Care

Many students are facing new hardships during the ongoing crisis. Around 1 in 5 students (21%) experienced the death of a friend or family member in the last year. One quarter experienced financial difficulties (26%) and a decrease in household income (25%). Seventeen percent dealt or are dealing with food insecurity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing campus issues, including college hunger, and students want more support. A previous BestColleges.com study found that 45% of college students felt their schools should continue providing services like food pantries and housing assistance beyond the pandemic.

Still, not all of the past year's changes were bad. While 30% of students said they spent less time with or communicating with family and friends, 26% reported an increase in time spent with family and friends. Students are also dedicating more time to themselves, with nearly all (98%) engaging in some form of self-care.

Students' top three self-care activities were spending time on hobbies such as reading and crafting (52%), engaging in physical exercise (44%), and getting outdoors (38%). More than one quarter (28%) of students discovered a new hobby during the pandemic, and over 1 in 5 (21%) have dedicated more time to developing a particular skill.

In addition, more students are carving out time for social activism, with 16% reporting being able to spend more time and resources on supporting important causes over the past year.

COVID-19's Impact on Mental Health Hurts Academics

For the vast majority of college students, COVID-19 has altered much more than how they take classes. Just 3% of respondents said COVID-19 has not impacted their lives outside of school. All of this stress beyond school, however, can still impact academic outcomes.

Nearly half of students (48%) believe mental health effects from circumstances related to COVID-19 have directly affected their education. According to a recent BestColleges.com study, 46% of college students are struggling with burnout, i.e., feelings of extreme fatigue and apathy that lead to a decline in academic performance.

One-third of students worried about being able to maintain a minimum GPA. Even with courses conducted online, 37% of students said they've found it challenging to attend class on time. More than half (52%) reported struggling to complete homework.

The pandemic has made it more difficult to be a college student — to engage with courses and interact with fellow students and faculty. Nearly 6 in 10 students said COVID-19 circumstances have hindered their ability to participate in class (56%) and meet new people (56%).

Students Lament the Loss of Campus Activities

College students feel like they're missing out on campus life and its usual roster of social activities. The top experience students had been looking forward to was the opportunity to meet new friends and romantic partners on campus (42%). Students reported being unable to participate in sporting events (51%), school traditions (49%), and social groups (43%), including sororities and fraternities.

Students who experienced social isolation or loneliness in the last year were especially likely to feel they were missing out on the college experience. Of those students, 85% said pandemic-related circumstances have made it hard for them to meet new people, make friends, and/or date.

While the full impact COVID-19 on college students' mental health, relief from social isolation and screen time may soon become a reality, as more colleges announce plans to return to normal operations this fall. Between the increased accessibility of COVID-19 tests and the ongoing rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the majority (54%) of students feel hopeful about the future.


Methodology

The survey was conducted from February 24 to March 3 of 2021. Student respondents were fielded by Lucid LLC. Survey participants included 702 college students nationwide that experienced remote learning over the past year. Respondents were 18-25 years of age, enrolled at a college or university, and pursuing an associate or bachelor's degree. The respondents for the survey were screened by various quality checks, including systems like Relevant ID, and responses were manually reviewed to ensure consistency and accuracy.


Feature Image: LajosRepasi / E+ / Getty Images

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