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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 UNC study.

The study is based on the experiences of 419 Carolina students, and reflects the challenge faced by colleges nationwide to support student well-being. Researchers from the Carolina Population Center and the UNC School of Medicine published the study findings in PLOS ONE.

“First-year college students seem to be particularly struggling with social isolation and adapting to distanced learning,” said lead study author Jane Cooley Fruehwirth, an associate professor in the department of economics and a CPC faculty fellow.

Her collaborators include Siddhartha Biswas, a doctoral candidate in economics, and Krista Perreira, a professor of social medicine and a CPC fellow.

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

The study is unique among the growing number of reports about COVID-19’s mental health toll: researchers were able to follow the same group of first–year college students before and after the pandemic began and asked them about a broad range of stressors.

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

The study 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 the coronavirus infecting them or their family or friends.

Fruehwirth said 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.

Published in the Spring 2021 issue | The Scoop

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