College students’ mental health impacted by COVID-19

As a result of fearing for the health of their family members and friends, and not being able to participate in extracurricular activities — such as jobs, sports, and travel — more than 14 million across the globe have been plagued by the effects of the of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, schools began to weigh their options to keep their students and staff safe from contracting and spreading the virus, and eventually came to the conclusion that closing down schools and learning remotely would be the safest possible option.

In an article published on the Economic Policy Institute, Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss, two economists at the Economic Policy Institute stated, “The shutdown of schools, compounded by the associated public health and economic crises, poses major challenges to our students and their teachers. Our public education was not built, nor prepared to cope with a situation like this,” thus suggesting that learning remotely might not be an entirely beneficial decision.

To determine whether or not the pandemic had a significant negative impact on students’ mental health, researchers at Texas A&M University recruited 266 students from a large university system in Texas to participate in their study.

Demographic information was collected to analyze differences among age, gender, academic year, and major to determine the distribution of ratings on the Perceived Stress Scale, a self-report psychological scale created as a way of determining whether or not certain events are stressful .

Once this information was all sorted, a mean PSS score was calculated to determine the overall stress and anxiety levels. In this population, that number was much higher than normal, indicating that the pandemic has had a direct effect on the stress and anxiety levels of college students.

Additionally, 71% of those sampled had indicated an increase in stress and anxiety as a direct result of the pandemic.

This study, however, was not the only collegiate study done to determine the effects that COVID-19 has had on its students.

According to researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder, 58.2% of the students who took part in the study had expressed that negative learning experiences came as a result of being stuck at home for such a long period of time.

This study also found that motivation to do school work also went down during the lockdown period. In fact, 76.8% of the students strongly agreed that their means of learning were hindered by remote courses.

While these statistics were discovered through the course of collegiate studies, other researchers focused more on which particular online mechanisms were contributing to these negative feelings.

An article published by Stanford University on Feb. 23 found that prolonged periods of video chat were contributing to a feeling of tiredness, worry or burnout in a phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue.”

While most see Zoom as a means of talking to family and friends, others recognize that being on Zoom for extended periods of time might actually be doing more harm than good.

“When we are just hanging out with a good friend, we can be more relaxed because our presence in the same space can be sufficient to provide companionship and support,” Suzanne Degges-White wrote in Psychology Today.  “When we’re on a video conferencing type app, and it is two people hanging out and not engaging in a conversation, the situation can feel a little weird.”

Degges-White further explained that 85% of the message that we are trying to convey is sent through our body language. But when on a video chat, it is hard to recognize the expression of body language. Deggis-White expressed that body language is what gives a conversation context and depth.

With a lack of visible body language, people may have a harder time concentrating on what the other person is saying and staying on track.

An article published on Psychiatric Times by Jena Lee, a board certified child and adult psychiatrist at UCLA, explained how social interactions are associated with higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone that is commonly expressed in social bonding.

In fact, functional MRI data has revealed that having conversations on Zoom is associated with lesser activations of the reward circuit, a region of the brain which includes the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and ventral striatum.

“So more active social connection is associated with more perceived reward, which in turn affects the very neurological pathways modulating alertness versus fatigue,” Lee wrote.