COVID has increased rates of anxiety and depression among college students. And they were already above average


Before COVID, college and vocational students were at high risk for developing mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Indeed, they already experience much higher levels of psychological distress than the general population.

But since COVID, this group is even more at risk. Our study found that the percentage of university and professional students reporting extremely high levels of distress during the pandemic (23%) was higher than before the pandemic (19%).

We also compared the percentage of Australian adults in the general population reporting extremely high levels of distress before (3%) and during (13%) COVID. In this population, too, levels of distress increased significantly.

Thus, overall, the percentage of higher education students reporting extremely high levels of distress (23%) remained much higher than for adults in the general population (13%).

Women and international students among the most affected

Pandemics increase the amount of stressors people are subjected to for a number of reasons. Among university students, these include the health effects associated with illness, worrying about getting sick, inability to work, having to study online, and being separated from friends and family. his family.

Results from studies in the United States and China have also shown that COVID has increased levels of distress and mental health issues among college students.

Read more: Most of us will regain our sanity after confinement. But some will have a harder time bouncing back

In our unpublished study, we measured distress in 1,072 students enrolled in academic and vocational education and training programs across Australia. To do this, we used an online survey consisting of demographic questions and the 10-item Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10), an aggregate measure of distress and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The survey asks ten questions such as “In the past four weeks, how often have you felt hopeless? And “in the past four weeks, how many times have you felt so agitated that you couldn’t sit still?”

For each question, respondents should indicate whether it is “all the time”, “most of the time”, “sometimes”, “a little time” or “never”.

In the first part of the study, we compared the current levels of student distress to pre-pandemic student distress, also measured using the K10, and found that the current levels were higher.

Women, international students, and students with a history of mental health problems had the highest rates of depression and anxiety symptoms.

Groups with the highest levels of distress were younger students, women, international students, students living in Queensland and those previously diagnosed with a mental disorder, as well as those receiving mental health care .

Read more: ‘It takes a mental toll’: Indian students tell their story of waiting for pandemic in Australia

But here’s what we know can help

We recently conducted a review of (forthcoming) studies designed to promote mental health and stress resilience in college students. We have found:

  • focusing attention on the present moment was the most reliable exercise for reducing anxiety symptoms

  • engaging in enjoyable and personally meaningful activities was the most effective exercise in reducing symptoms of depression

  • positive relationships with others decreased symptoms of anxiety and paranoia and improved positive emotions

  • humor relieves symptoms of anxiety

  • keeping a journal relieved symptoms of anxiety. Doing this can also improve positive emotions.

  • acceptance under difficult circumstances also relieved symptoms of anxiety, but not as effectively as focusing attention on the present moment, humor, journaling, or positive relationships

  • gratitude, optimism, self-compassion, awareness of emotions, and taking probiotics all helped improve mental health, but not as effectively as the other exercises described above

  • exercise relieves symptoms of depression and anxiety and can also improve positive emotions if the participant does not push too far beyond their ability level.

Preventive measures are important

Most Australian universities already offer mental health support programs for students. But these tend to focus on treating distress rather than preventing it. Where training in stress management is available, it is usually done in isolated programs.

This contrasts with national medical health strategies which rely heavily on preventive health initiatives. These are usually educational campaigns that teach people how to take care of their health instead of waiting for them to show up to the hospital emergency room. Campaigns start in the early years of school and continue throughout life.

Australia’s national mental health plan also includes prevention strategies, but it does not involve educating people on how to take care of their own mental health in the same way as preventive medical education.

Read more: Stressed out, dropout: COVID has wreaked havoc on university students

Research shows that every dollar spent by universities on mental health prevention programs saves more than $ 6 in health care costs and waste resulting from not completing courses.

In vocational education and training, this amount increases to over $ 11 saved for every $ 1 spent. This is due to less on-campus mental health resources and training at these institutions compared to universities.

The Productivity Commission recommended that mental health prevention programs be made compulsory in universities and other higher education institutions. This is even more necessary now due to the negative impact of the pandemic.

If you are experiencing extreme levels of distress that you cannot manage, it is advisable to speak to your GP about creating a mental health plan or to contact your educational institution’s counseling service.

If this article has raised any issues for you, or if you are concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.


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