Study: College students’ mental health suffered when displaced by pandemic

A new study finds college students who were forced to relocate when their campuses shut down due to COVID-19 last spring experienced a higher rate of mental health issues.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston University’s School of Social Work and McLean Hospital found elevated rates of COVID-19-related grief, loneliness and generalized anxiety, as well as symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to students who did not have to move.

“The mere fact of having to move from where you live is something that can affect you mentally,” said Dr. Cindy Liu, a clinical psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and one of the authors of the study. “About a third of the participants in our study were asked to leave campus. And those that had to relocate showed higher rates of mental health problems.”

Surveys were collected from 791 undergraduate and graduate students from across the country, primarily the northeast region, between last April and August. The findings were published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

Students already experience higher rates of mental health problems, Liu explained. But for many students who already suffer from anxiety and depression, the added life disruption of relocation amplified those mental health issues, the study found. Those who have a higher tolerance to handle stress were less likely to experience adverse psychological effects of relocation.

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A lack of access to social support and mental health resources that had been available on campus can compound problems, Liu said.

One major stressor researchers found was having to leave behind personal belongings on campus.

“We think about items that are important to us. It could be things like medication that really have a huge effect on how well we do,” Liu said. “We had students who were studying abroad and couldn’t get back to campus, and yet their items were moved without them being there.”

Certain populations were disproportionally affected by relocation. Students who receive financial aid were more likely to be displaced. Participants in the study who identified as sexual and gender minorities reported elevated distress in leaving campus.

“For many of them, they may or may not have disclosed their orientation to their family, yet have had to move back to family,” Liu said. “So that may be an added stress for those students.”

For many students, a lack of communication from their schools and clarity on when they could return contributed to a heightened level of distress. Liu believes the study could help inform colleges and universities about the effects of displacement and the need for ample support as the schools make future decisions about relocation.

“We hope there will not be another major outbreak, but that is to be determined,” Liu said. “While we do want to mitigate contagion, we also have to acknowledge the mental health consequences of our decisions.”

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Researchers will continue to follow students to assess the long-term effects of relocation.

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