Worry, Depression, Burnout: Survey Finds College Students Stressed as Fall Term Nears
Like many of her peers, Ohio State University engineering student Mary Trabue spent much of the pandemic taking classes online. And she was struggling.
"I don't know what was wrong, but I just felt tired all the time because I wasn't sleeping," she said. "And I knew I couldn't continue down that path."
Whether a question of COVID-related depression, anxiety, burnout or all of the above, a new Ohio State survey suggests that Trabue is not alone.
Conducted between August 2020 and April 2021, the survey found that 71% of nearly 1,100 Ohio State University (OSU) students said they were battling burnout this past spring. That's up from about 40% back in the summer of 2020.
Students also reported a notable rise in both anxiety and depression, as COVID-19 upended their academic experience. In the spring of 2021, nearly 43% said anxiety was a concern, up from 39% early in the pandemic. Similarly, more than 28% reported being depressed this past April, up from 24% during the prior August.
None of this is a surprise, said survey lead author Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, "as there is a mental health pandemic inside of the COVID-19 pandemic in students all across the U.S."
Melnyk is vice president for health promotion and dean of Ohio State's College of Nursing, as well as president of the U.S. National Consortium for Building Healthy Academic Communities.
'The uncertainty of everything'
Peirce Robinson is a senior theater major at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. The 21-year-old said he's also struggled during the pandemic.
"I think a lot of the stress we're experiencing is from the uncertainty of everything," said the Philadelphia native. "Back when this was all beginning I was on my way to rehearsal, and we got an email that 'all student activities are going to be cancelled.' There was so little discussion, but we thought it was us being sent home for a week, and then we'll be back. But that kind of uncertainty just played out the whole rest of the year."
"Everyone was sort of 'We don't know what's going to happen next,'" Robinson added.
Then there's all the disruptions to social life.
"College is really about the social sphere that you create," he said. "A big part of it is seeing people, bumping into people you know, people you don't know. But that did not exist anywhere near in the same capacity. So much of your social life just ceased to exist. And it's awfully depressing to be lumped inside with maybe two or three other people, and not be able to have that same sort of social connection and energy. There's only so much time you can spend at a computer."
Eating and weight has also been a big issue: The survey also found that poor nutritional habits among students rose from 25% to 29% during the study time frame.
Drinking also ticked up from under 16% to 18%, while smoking and vaping increased from 6% to 8%, the survey found.
And while back in the summer of 2020 more than one-third of students (35%) had been inclined to increase their physical activity, that figure dipped to just 28% this past spring.
This Ohio State video elaborates on the findings:
The study findings suggest that many students may have a pretty rough time when they start returning to campus for in-person learning next month. So, campus administrations will have to reach out to them to help ease the adjustment, according to Andrea Corn. She's a clinical psychologist in Boca Raton, Fla., who specializes in psychotherapy for children, adolescents, adults and families.Stressful returns
"Our students are going to be dealing with many difficult issues and stresses," Corn warned. "So, I think university administrations have to make it very clear that 'we're here for you, and we want to help. Talk to us, share your concerns.' And ask students for their input as to what can be done to make this transition safer, how sitting in a classroom can be made more interesting and enjoyable, without -- for example -- worrying about getting COVID from the person sitting next to me," she added.
"The question should be: 'How can we make you feel safe?'" Corn said. "And that means getting student input, because we don't know what's in the student's mind. And we should not make assumptions as if we do."
Melnyk agreed, suggesting that universities should equip college students with coping tools that can help minimize pandemic-related stresses.
"These skills are not a nicety; they are a necessity," said Melnyk. "Mental health problems are the top reason that students drop out of college."
To that end, OSU is establishing the "5 to Thrive" plan, a mental checklist to help students form healthy habits, build resiliency, find local mental health support, promote socializing, and encourage seeking professional help if needed.
As for Mary Trabue, she's fashioned her own recipe for recovery. She's regularly talking with a counselor for help with grounding herself whenever panic or anxiety bubbles to the surface. And she's hitting the gym, powerlifting weights, as a way to clear her head.
"I just noticed how much anxiety and stress was also relieved after my lifts," she said during a video on the survey. "And how it just cleared my mind from my schoolwork."
For his part, Robinson said, "I think it's a super stressful transition. I don't think we'll ever return to normal. It'll be the 'new normal,' whatever that is."
Still, he added, "it's true that us coming back is also kind of hopeful in a way. We can finally get cracking at working on these things, and gathering, and having conversations, that sort of thing. But universities need to create an atmosphere that fosters those kind of conversations. And they need to be right by the students' side, to help them with the change that needs to happen."
There's more on student mental health during the pandemic at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
SOURCES: Peirce Robinson, senior and theater major, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.; Mary Trabue, engineering student, Ohio State University, Columbus; Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, PhD, vice president, health promotion, chief wellness officer and dean, College of Nursing, Ohio State University, Columbus, and president, National Consortium for Building Healthy Academic Communities; Andrea Corn, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, private practice, Boca Raton, Fla.; Campus Follow-Up Survey Report for Students at The Ohio State University, May 2021