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First-year college students are reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety significantly more often than they were before the coronavirus pandemic, according to a study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Just published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study is based on surveys of 419 Carolina students and reflects the challenge of colleges nationwide to support student well-being.

The study is unique among the growing number of reports about COVID-19’s mental health toll: Researchers followed the same group of first-year college students before and after the pandemic began. Plus, students were asked about a broad range of issues to reveal remote learning as their main stressor.

“First-year college students seem to be particularly struggling with social isolation and adapting to distanced learning,” says lead study author Jane Cooley Fruehwirth, an associate professor in the UNC Department of Economics and a faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center.

Using survey data, researchers found the prevalence of moderate to severe anxiety in first-year college students increased 40 percent, from 18.1 percent before the pandemic to 25.3 percent within four months after the pandemic began; and the prevalence of moderate to severe depression in first years increased by 48 percent, from 21.5 percent to 31.7 percent.

Hardest hit by depression were Black students, whose incidence of depression grew by 89 percent. Depression and anxiety increased dramatically among sexual and gender minority students.

For Hispanics and first-generation college students, feelings of social isolation declined from 24.2 percent to 17.1 percent and 35.3 percent to 27.4 percent, respectively as these students left the university and returned to their homes.

Addressing pandemic pressures

Fruehwirth collaborated with Siddhartha Biswas, a doctoral candidate in economics, and Krista Perreira, a professor of social medicine at the UNC School of Medicine and a faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center, on the study conducted October 2019 to July 2020.

Their findings showed students’ mental health struggles were associated with distanced learning and social isolation more so than other stressors, such as work reduction or worries about coronavirus infecting them or their family or friends.

The results speak to the difficulties colleges face as they determine how to best help students who are relying on remote instruction during the pandemic, according to Fruehwirth.

One way colleges can help first-year students is by developing creative solutions to help them feel less socially isolated. Another is helping them succeed as remote learners.

“Here at Carolina, I’ve been encouraged to see all the initiatives from the Learning Center at UNC-Chapel Hill that offer coaching to students to adapt to the online learning environment,” Fruehwirth says. “The study underscores the importance of instructors to understand the toll this is taking on students and to know how important their efforts can be in finding ways to support those who are struggling.”

Universities are providing services to address these needs. For example, at UNC where the study took place, on-campus services such as UNC Counseling and Psychological Services offer therapy and mental health workshops, peer support, and crisis services. The CAPS Multicultural Health Program is designed to meet the mental health needs of Black, indigenous, and students of color.

“Even prior to the pandemic, colleges were struggling to find ways to deal with a growing mental health crisis on their campuses,” Fruehwirth said. “Now with all the pressures of the pandemic, resources are even tighter, yet the mental health needs of students are growing. This problem isn’t going to just go away, and it is important that we address this before students reach a crisis stage.”


This story was produced by staff within the Carolina Population Center and University Communications.

Jane Cooley Fruehwirth is an associate professor in the Department of Economics within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences and a faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center.

Siddhartha Biswas is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Economics within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.

Krista Perreira is a professor in the Department of Social Medicine within the UNC School of Medicine and a faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center. She is also an adjunct professor in the departments of Health Policy and Management, Health Behavior, and Maternal and Child Health within the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

This research was supported by the Carolina Population Center and its National Institutes of Health (NIH)/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Grant Award Number P2C HD50924 (JF), the Integrating Special Populations/ North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute through Grant Award Number ILITR002489 (KP).

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