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The COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened the mental health of U.S. college students

A new study shows that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused a decline in the mental health of American college students.

Students most at risk for pandemic mental health challenges include women, Asians, students under the age of 25, the sick, those who knew someone with COVID-19 and lower-income students, the researchers reported. January 7 in PLOS ONE.

Even before the advent of the new coronavirus, American college students struggled with depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders at higher rates than the general population. Many college students are struggling with a new social environment, struggling to discover their careers and worrying about finances, says Matthew Browning, an environmental psychologist at Clemson University in South Carolina.

To assess how the pandemic affects students ’mental health, Browning and colleagues surveyed more than 2,500 students at seven public universities across the United States last spring as the pandemic escalated. Study participants rated statements about their emotional state, concern for COVID-19, stress, and time use. Based on total scores, the researchers rated the students as experiencing high, moderate, or low levels of anxiety and emotional worry. The researchers observed that they did not use standardized screening tools for disorders such as anxiety and depression, but rather zoomed in on mental health stressors derived directly from the pandemic (SN: 29/3/20).

About 85 percent of students surveyed experienced high to moderate levels of anxiety, according to Browning’s team: about 45 percent were severely affected and about 40 percent had a moderate impact. Those who reported low levels of distress were more likely to be white and spend two or more hours outdoors.

Some factors put some students at greater risk of feeling very distressed. Women were twice as likely to fall into that group versus moderate or low groups, while Asians were 30 percent more likely. Spending eight hours or more in front of computer screens, smartphones, or television has also increased the risk.

Colleges and universities must meet the basic safety and psychological needs of students before true learning can take place, Browning says. "We need to address the mental well-being of students before thinking about the best way to teach online classes during COVID."

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