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New Study Shows COVID-19 Impact on College Students

Research included college students at the pandemic’s epicenter in spring 2020

Posted in: Faculty News, News, Research

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Photo courtesy of Mike Peters for Montclair State University

A new study conducted by Montclair State University faculty members Jazmin A. Reyes-Portillo, Carrie Masia Warner, Michael T. Bixter and a team of doctoral students found that college students at the epicenter of the pandemic in spring 2020 were severely affected by academic, financial and COVID-related stressors.

The study, titled “The Psychological, Academic, and Economic Impact of COVID-19 on College Students in the Epicenter of the Pandemic,” is the largest study of its kind , and surveyed more than 4,700 students from both public and private institutions in New York and New Jersey.

The findings show that the pandemic affected the mental health of the entire sample, and self-reports showed students of color in particular were disproportionately affected by financial stressors.

“Black, Latinx and Asian students reported higher rates of worry about continuing their education relative to white students due to financial difficulties,” says Reyes-Portillo, one of the lead authors of the study and assistant professor of Psychology at Montclair. “Compared to white students, they reported a lower likelihood of expecting to complete the spring 2020 semester.”

What was consistent across all groups was the tremendous impact on mental health, says Masia Warner, also a lead author of the study and professor of Psychology at Montclair. “Most reported being more depressed or down, three-quarters of the sample reported feeling more anxious, with uncontrollable worry. Sixty-eight percent reported sleep problems, and – this is most concerning – 60% reported feeling hopeless.”

Reyes-Portillo added that feelings of depression, anxiety and hopelessness, sleep problems and increased social isolation are factors that can heighten students’ risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

The team led a multi-institutional study of 4,714 college students attending schools in New York or New Jersey during the spring 2020 semester. Reyes-Portillo says the large sample size, studied when the area was the epicenter of the pandemic, makes the findings more generalizable, in terms of impact.

“Given how extraordinary these events are, it’s important to document how it’s affected college students, who are particularly vulnerable,” says Reyes-Portillo. “But young adulthood is a high-risk period for the onset of mental health problems, even without a major stressor like the pandemic. It’s a period of immense growth and personal change. Add in COVID, and it’s a one-in-100-year event that we felt was important to highlight.”

“This is our future generation,” says Masia Warner. “Clearly we have documented that universities have to pay attention and make sure they’re reaching these students to get them over this difficult time. The impact has not passed even if the pandemic has. We may see the reverberations of this for years.”

For information on mental health resources offered at Montclair, visit the department of Counseling and Psychological Services.