Data show a decline in physical, mental health among college students one year into COVID-19.

After conducting research on college students from before COVID-19, and a follow-up survey at the year I mark an international group of scientists found no improvement in students’ mental well-being even after the introduction of vaccines and the reduction of social distancing techniques and even a return to campuses in many instances.

The spring 2021 research found that students experienced a 35% decrease in daily steps as well as a 36% rise in the chance of developing clinical depression. This is about half the students who were surveyed.

The scientists, which included one each from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University as along with 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 for a study published online on Dec. 2 in Scientific Reports.

I was surprised to discover that some of the first changes in lifestyle and mental health that began in spring 2020 continued to linger until spring 2021, even though restrictions were lifted.

Osea Giunitella is an expert in labor and health economics, is an assistant professor at the Department of Economics, Kenneth P. Dietrich school of Arts & Sciences

The researchers, in a paper published earlier this year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), utilized data from prior to the pandemic’s spring 2020 global start to show significant disturbances in physical activity, sleep social interactions and screen time among college students. The Scientific Reports paper examines the ongoing “lifestyle, mental health disruptions” one year after the onset of COVID. The new study is focused more on habit formation and adaptation to environmental changes. However, it offers an analysis based on data that shows the way this group suffered physical and mental well-being issues that could affect policies and protocols in both the short- and longer-term.

“These long-lasting effects of the pandemic are worrisome. Because mental and lifestyle health did not rebound as the pandemic began to ease it is crucial to come up with strategies 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 2021. median age 19 with 95% of the participants under the age of 23. The data was collected with wearable devices, which the students used for just one semester. The initial two “waves” were in the spring and fall semesters of 2019, prior to when COVID-19 took off. The spring 2020 cohort began in February 2020, a little less than a month prior to when the pandemic was declared a national epidemic. It continued until April 2020, with a few people remaining until July 2020. The September-November 2020 fall semester was followed by the February-May 2021 Spring semester. April 2021 marked the start when COVID-19 vaccinations were available in Pennsylvania and by May’s end 95% of the students had received their first dose or more, and 85% of them received both doses.

Their physical activity ranged from 4600 steps per hour in March-April 2020, to 6,300, May-July 2020, 6,900, September-November 2020, and 6,900 in September-November 2020… then it dropped again this spring, February-May 2021, to 6,400. However it wasn’t back to the pre-pandemic levels of 9,800 steps per day. It was the same for their non-sedentary and their active hours each day. They ranged from 4.3 hours prepandemic to nearly 2.9 hours when the pandemic started to around 3.6 hours this fall (2021) and in spring (2021).

Researchers found that screen time was still significantly higher than levels before the pandemic. However the amount of social interaction tripled to normal levels in the first year, from 40 to 1.5 hours.

The Center for Epidemiological Depression Scale, which is the primary measure of mental health, was utilized by researchers to identify significant rises in depression symptoms between spring 2020 through spring 2021. While students’ scores increased 50% by the time they experienced the first signs of the pandemic in the year 2020, they were still overall 24 percent higher than the levels before the pandemic when they were measured in the spring of 2021.

In the end, researchers estimated that 42-56% of their participants by spring 2021 were at risk for clinical depression.

“Our results show how it is essential for universities to take steps to protect themselves and discover ways to improve physical and mental health,” Giuntella and Saccardo said.

Journal reference:

Barbieri, P.N., et al. (2021) Lifestyle and mental health one year into COVID-19. Scientific Reports.

Content Source:

Gemma Wilson

Gemma is a journalism graduate with keen interest in covering business news – specifically startups. She has as a keen eye for technologies and has predicted quite a few successful startups over the last couple of years.

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