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How COVID Has Impacted the Mental Health of College Students

college students communicating virtually on graduation day

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives around the globe in a myriad of ways, ranging from the inconvenient to the devastating. Isolation, job losses, school closures, disrupted routines, family problems, and loss of in-person support systems have all contributed to an increase in mental health issues, substance use disorders, eating disorders, and both domestic and community violence.

The pandemic is linked to increased mental health problems for all age groups, and several studies have found college students are no exception. Isolation from their peers is especially difficult for young adults and can trigger stress, anxiety, depression, and fear. Many college students identify the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 as a trigger for their current mental health issues.

Research Shows COVID Has Affected College Student Mental Health

In the first of a five-part series on COVID-19’s Impact on College Student Mental Health by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State, researchers analyzed data from 47,797 college students seeking treatment at 143 counseling centers between July and November 2020.

When asked how COVID has negatively affected their lives, students responded the pandemic had impacted their:

  • Mental health (65 percent)
  • Motivation or focus (61 percent)
  • Loneliness or isolation (60 percent)
  • Academics (59 percent)
  • Missed experiences or opportunities (54 percent)

Overall, 85 percent of the students surveyed reported COVID-19 had negatively impacted at least one aspect of life. One-third of the students reported seeking mental health services because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research entitled Effects of COVID-19 on College Students Mental Health in the United States surveyed 195 college students at a large public U.S. college, seeking to understand the effects of the pandemic on the students’ mental health and well-being.

The survey found about 91 percent of the students reported the pandemic had negatively impacted their lives, including leading to increased stress, anxiety, and depressive thoughts, fear about their own health and the health of loved ones, sleep problems, and concern about academic performance. Eighty-six percent of the students reported decreased social interactions were at least partially responsible for their mental health issues.

The study concluded by stressing the importance of developing “interventions and preventive strategies to address the mental health of college students.”

Steps Students Can Take to Improve Mental Health

As a college student, there are many steps you can take to improve your mental health, even when there is a pandemic or other crisis going on in your life. By concentrating on your physical, mental, and spiritual health, you can develop healthy habits to last a lifetime.

Seeking mental health counseling through in-person or telehealth visits is an excellent first step. Counselors can help you get to the source of your negative emotions and teach you stress management, relaxation, and other coping skills to improve your mental health and quality of life. If you are having suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.

Besides counseling, other steps you can take include:

  • Stay physically active. Walk, run, swim, or bike, exercise along with a YouTube exercise video, or do yoga.
  • Be mindful. Meditate, practice mindfulness, read, watch, or listen to positive, inspirational stories. Strengthen your spiritual health through spiritual readings, online church services, communing with nature, or by whatever method helps you feel peace.
  • Stay positive. Limit negative news, movies, TV, and people.
  • Maintain social connections. Stay in touch with family, friends, and peers through phone calls, emails, video chats, and online social clubs.
  • Learn something new. You can find instructive YouTube videos on virtually any subject.
  • Find supportive peers. Joining an online support group can help you talk to people who are living through similar situations.
  • Refuse to give up on your college dream. Attend online courses if they are available. Maintain contact with your college to keep up with the latest news and resources they are offering students. Take advantage of virtual library services, virtual tutoring, and online meetings with student advisers.
  • Avoid addictive substances. Turning to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism can make any underlying mental health problems worse.

What Can Families and Friends Do to Help?

Providing a strong support network is the best way to help your college student stay healthy. Call or video chat frequently, be a good listener and do your best to keep things positive. Let them know you are always available to talk and listen.

Encourage them to focus on their physical and mental wellbeing. If they are living with you, provide the healthiest home environment possible. Because the pandemic has disrupted so many households, this may be challenging. If other members of the family are experiencing mental health or substance use disorders, join a family support group and consider family counseling.

What Can Colleges Do to Help?

Most colleges are making heroic efforts to provide for the social and academic needs of their students during school closures. Many are offering virtual classrooms, online guidance and counseling, and social and mental health resources to help students stay healthy as they continue their education.

Other ways colleges can help:

  • Have a “buddy” system in place where students regularly check in with one another.
  • Devise a system for school counselors and advisors to perform check-ins with students.
  • Provide basic mental health training to professors and other school staff, parents, and students so they can recognize the danger signs of a mental health problem.
  • Provide a campus or online wellness center.
  • Offer online fitness, stress reduction, nutrition, and health education classes.
  • Offer confidential substance abuse, eating disorders, and mental health counseling services or referrals.
  • Help interested students set up online academic, religious, social, or other clubs or forums.

The more students feel supported and valued as they struggle to maintain a positive outlook during these unprecedented times, the more likely they are to stay physically and mentally healthy.

Turning Point of Tampa has been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987.

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