Friday, April 19, 2024

College students in declining mental, physical health one year into pandemic, study shows

Following research about college students from before COVID-19 with a survey at the pandemic’s one-year mark, an international team of scientists detected no improvement in the students’ mental well-being even after the introduction of vaccines and the easing of social distancing methods, let alone a return to campuses in many instances. In fact, the researchers in spring 2021 found marked declines in both physical and emotional health  – students sustained a 35% decline in their number of daily steps and a 36% increase in the number at risk of clinical depression, or roughly half of the total students surveyed. The scientists, including one each from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of California San Diego, and the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, combined biometric and survey data from several groups of college students (totaling 1,179) from spring 2019 to spring 2021 in a study published online Dec. 2 in Scientific Reports. “We were surprised when the data showed us that some of the initial disruptions to lifestyle and mental health that occurred in the spring of 2020 persisted through spring 2021 while restrictions were being lifted,”‘ said Osea Giuntella, an expert in labour and health economics and an assistant professor in the Department of Economics in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences. The researchers, in a paper published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), used data from prior to the pandemic’s spring 2020 international onset to document sizable disruptions in sleep, physical activity, social interactions, and even screen time among college students. The Scientific Reports paper examines a continuation of “lifestyle and mental health disruptions one year” into these times of COVID. While the new study contributes to a larger focus on habit formation and adaptation to environmental changes, it offers a data-distilled look at how this subset suffered physical and mental well-being alterations, which could influence policies and protocols in the short- and long-term. “These long-lasting effects of the pandemic are worrisome. Since lifestyle and mental health did not rebound as the pandemic started to ease, it will be important to develop interventions to reduce sedentary habits and improve well-being,” said Silvia Saccardo, assistant professor in the department of Social and Decision Sciences in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. The study involved five cohorts of University of Pittsburgh students between spring 2019 and spring 2021: median age 19, with 95% of the respondents under the age of 23. Data was collected via wearable devices that the students used for one semester. Their physical activity waxed and waned, from 4,600 steps per day from March-April 2020 to 6,300 in May-July 2020 to 6,900 in September-November 2020… then dipping again this past spring, February-May 2021, to 6,400. Still, it hadn’t returned to the pre-pandemic levels of 9,800 steps per day. The same happened to their active or non-sedentary time each day, ranging from 4.3 hours pre-pandemic, to 2.9 hours at pandemic’s start, to roughly 3.6 hours both this past fall (2020) and spring (2021) semesters. Screen time remained “significantly” higher than pre-pandemic levels, the researchers wrote, though time spent in social interactions went back to normal levels over that first year, from 40 minutes to 90 minutes. Using the Center for Epidemiological Depression scale, the primary measure for mental health, the researchers found large increases in symptoms of depression from spring 2020 through spring 2021. While students’ scores increased 50% at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, they were still overall 24% higher than pre-pandemic levels when recorded in spring 2021. In the end, the researchers estimated that 42-56% of their participants by spring 2021 were at risk for clinical depression. “Our results show how It is crucial for universities to take precautions and find ways to improve mental and physical wellbeing,” Giuntella and Saccardo said.

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