During the initial coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak, college students were more depressed and anxious than they were during similar time frames in previous academic years, according to a new study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused more than 661,000 deaths globally with more than 16 million confirmed cases, according to the World Health Organization. College students, many of whom are already stressed, reported an increase in depression and anxiety during the initial outbreak. 

The study, which was conducted by Dartmouth College, was composed of more than 200 students. The study authors did not initially intend to measure the mental health of students during the pandemic, according to a press release. The initial study, which began 2 years ago, was intended to follow students across their college careers. 

The study authors used the sensing app StudentLife to collect information from the participants. The app, which was designed by Dartmouth, passively collected information such as phone usage, number of phone unlocks, sleep duration, and sedentary time. Data on depression and anxiety were collected weekly through self-reported assessments administered through the app. 

Researchers observed a notable increase in self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the onset of COVID-19. During this time frame, major policy changes, such as the switch to remote learning, took place. 

These changes also took place during the end of classes and final exams, which is one of the most stressful times for students during any academic term. According to the study, anxiety and depression decreased slightly after final exams as students settled into shelter-in-place locations. 

The study authors also found a connection between depression and news coverage, though the link was not as strong. As news coverage increased, so too did sedentary behavior and longer duration of phone use. 

Researchers also found that the number of locations visited was consistent with social distancing and shelter-in-place policies implemented by local governments. This contrasts other research that suggested college students were not following governmental social distancing policies. 

"Many people wouldn't expect college students to listen to social distancing orders, but these students did. We found that when social distancing was recommended by local governments, students were more sedentary and visited fewer locations on any given day…Clearly the impact of COVID-19 extends beyond the virus and its direct impacts. An unresolved question is if mental health and physical activity will continue to degrade over time, or if we will see a recovery, and how long that recovery will take," lecturer on psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, Jeremy Huckins, PhD, said in a press release. 

Upon study completion, the authors said they will be able to extend their findings on the disruption to students’ lives since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to the long-term impact of social and learning isolation students are experiencing. 

Reference:
COVID-19 increased anxiety, depression for already stressed college students (news release) July 27, 2020, Hanover, New Hampshire, EurekAlert! Accessed July 30, 2020