Here's How the COVID Lockdown Impacted College Students' Mental Health

Research shows more than one-third of students who were forced to relocate experienced higher levels of coronavirus-related grief, loneliness and generalized anxiety

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One year ago, universities urgently evacuated their campuses, upending the lives of college students across the country. A new study shows how that sudden move impacted their mental health.

Students who were forced to relocate during the spring were more likely to report COVID-19-related grief, loneliness and generalized anxiety symptoms than students who did not, according to research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston University’s School of Social Work, and McLean Hospital.

The study surveyed 791 undergraduate and graduate students, between April 9 and August 4, 2020. The findings were published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research last month.

Bridget Donohue, now a senior at Boston College, said she never could have anticipated the jarring turn of events during her junior year.

“It was stressful," Donohue said. "We actually had spring break the week COVID cases were popping up."

Soon after, Donohue received an email from the college that campus was shutting down. She had a day to get out.

"There were a lot of tearful goodbyes and it was just shocking," Donohue said. "I had to pack up my whole apartment in 24 hours."

Donohue is one of the millions of college students who were among the first to be impacted by COVID-19 lockdowns. The impact it had on students' mental health is now being quantified by local researchers in this latest study.

Approximately one-third of the respondents were required to leave campus, and roughly 80% needed to complete the move within one week. Of the 264 students who relocated, roughly 40% stated that they left valuable personal belongings behind.

These students were more likely to report COVID-19-related worries, grief, and symptoms of depression, generalized anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, even when accounting for the same predictors of mental health described above.

The association between mental health concerns and leaving behind personal belongings — which could include medication or other essential items — was particularly striking to the researchers, including corresponding author Dr. Cindy Liu, of the Departments of Pediatric Newborn Medicine and Psychiatry at the Brigham. 

“One of the things we assessed were their worries about COVID; whether or not they were at risk, have trouble attainting resources," Liu said. "It turns out that those who did showed these elevated rates, including higher levels of depression and PTSD-related symptoms."

Undergraduates and those with financial aid were most affected, the study shows.

"Young adults are showing a higher rate of depression, anxiety than all other age groups," Liu said.

Donohue had certain expectations for her college experience. But she said she feels uncertain, even now that she’s a senior.

“You just don’t know how to handle stuff at a certain point and it just creates so much more stress," Donohue said. “I worked four years to get this degree and I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk across the stage to get my diploma... I think it's going to leave me feeling like a missed out on a certain aspect of my college experience. I think it's also made me realize a lot of people had it way worse.”

The study in ongoing, according to Liu, as researchers continue follow up with students on their progress. As campuses reopen, universities need to make student mental health a priority, Liu said.

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