College students are feeling more anxious and depressed as they sleep less and spend more time on their phones, researchers said after spending four years monitoring the behaviors of young people.
Dartmouth College researchers began tracking 217 students when they entered the school as freshmen in 2017 in the hopes of understanding how they behave. They’ve seen students’ stress levels rise and fall, usually in tandem with midterm and final exams. But since the onset of the pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety have soared – and have showed no signs of coming down, said Andrew Campbell, a researcher and computer science professor.
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The research points to how the public health crisis is affecting young people and raises questions about what will be done to support them, a group that struggled disproportionately with mental health issues for years before the pandemic set in.
“The question is, how long will they stay like this?” said Campbell.
The findings also add to a growing body of research that indicate the effects of the coronavirus have extended beyond physical health and safety, particularly as people deal with social isolation, grief, unemployment and uncertainty about the future. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have noted increases in the number of adults seeking mental health care, dealing with anxiety and experiencing symptoms of depressive episodes.
Researchers at Dartmouth gathered data through a mobile app Campbell helped develop called StudentLife, which sits in the background of the user’s phone and collects information on location, phone usage, sleep duration and sedentary behavior. The program also delivered weekly assessments so students could give updates on their mood and stress levels.
The researchers then compared the data with the general public’s online search habits and found that students reported higher levels of stress as people were seeking information about “covid fatigue.” The strong correlation between the search term and certain behaviors such as increased phone usage help define the phenomenon and explain how covid fatigue affects mental health outcomes, researchers said.
“Interest in covid fatigue is a unique tool that allows us to understand how the ‘new normal’ may be associated with poor mental health outcomes,” said Dante Mack, the first author of the study.
Campbell and Jeremy Huckins, a lecturer on psychological and brain sciences, said they noticed the beginnings of a behavioral shift last spring. Early findings, published in June 2020, saw that students were more sedentary and visited fewer locations, an indication that they followed shelter-in-place guidelines implemented by state and local governments.
Rates of anxiety and depression soared during spring break of 2020, a time of year when students usually sleep more and report low levels of stress, Campbell and Huckins found. Those levels have yet to return to pre-pandemic normal, according to researchers.
“Before the pandemic set in, some students definitely were depressed or anxious but, on average, students were not scoring high on either of these metrics,” Huckins said. “We have these massive changes in mental health and behavior due to covid. We’ve never seen anything like that.”
The research comes after a difficult year on the Dartmouth campus. Four Dartmouth students died this school year, devastating the campus of more than 4,400 undergraduates and sparking outrage among those who say the school’s inadequate mental health resources are partially to blame.
First-year student Beau DuBray died by suicide in November, the campus newspaper, the Dartmouth, reported. Another freshman, Connor Tiffany, died “unexpectedly” in March, school officials said. Elizabeth Reimer, also a freshman, died in May at her home in Holtsville, N.Y., according to officials.
Junior Lamees Kareem died in April following complications with a medical condition unrelated to the coronavirus, said college President Philip Hanlon in a message to the community. The college did not say how the other students died.
Last month several graffitied messages admonishing the administration’s handling of what students have called a mental health crisis were found in three different locations on campus, including the president’s driveway, The Dartmouth student newspaper reported.
The college held a candlelight vigil, pledged to provide more mental health support and granted flexibility to those concerned about meeting end-of-semester deadlines. Officials also announced a partnership with the JED Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes emotional health and suicide prevention for young people.
“The pandemic has exacerbated many problems, but foremost among them has been mental health,” Hanlon said in a statement. “On this critical issue, we must do more to support our community.”
Campbell said Dartmouth and other schools are paying more attention to the mental health needs of their students. It’s a personal issue for the researcher, whose brother struggled with bipolar disorder and died of suicide, he said.
“There’s a revolution happening, slowly,” Campbell said, adding that mobile apps and wearable technology can help get to the root causes and identify the warning signs of a crisis. StudentLife, for example, can pick up on drastic changes in sleep behavior, an early clue of a mental illness, Campbell said.
“We need to exploit mobile technology that can sense behaviors and, importantly, give people information about their mental health,” Campbell said. “It’s a much deeper problem and much more systemic, in a sense.”
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