Mental health of UW students during Spring 2020 varied tremendously: the challenges of online learning during the pandemic were entwined with social isolation, family demands and socioeconomic pressures. In this context, individual differences in coping mechanisms had a big impact. The findings of this paper underline the need for interventions oriented towards problem-focused coping and suggest opportunities for peer role modeling.
College from home during COVID-19: A mixed-methods study of heterogeneous experiences. Morris ME, Kuehn KS, Brown J, Nurius PS, Zhang H, Sefidgar YS, Xuhai X, Riskin EA, Dey A, Consolvo S, Mankoff JC. (2021) PLoS ONE 16(6): e0251580. (reported in UW News and the Hechtinger Report)
This mixed-method study examined the experiences of college students during the COVID-19 pandemic through surveys, experience sampling data collected over two academic quarters (Spring 2019 n1 = 253; Spring 2020 n2 = 147), and semi-structured interviews with 27 undergraduate students.
There were no marked changes in mean levels of depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress, or loneliness between 2019 and 2020, or over the course of the Spring 2020 term. Students in both the 2019 and 2020 cohort who indicated psychosocial vulnerability at the initial assessment showed worse psychosocial functioning throughout the entire Spring term relative to other students. However, rates of distress increased faster in 2020 than in 2019 for these individuals. Across individuals, homogeneity of variance tests and multi-level models revealed significant heterogeneity, suggesting the need to examine not just means but the variations in individuals’ experiences.
Thematic analysis of interviews characterizes these varied experiences, describing the contexts for students’ challenges and strategies. This analysis highlights the interweaving of psychosocial and academic distress: Challenges such as isolation from peers, lack of interactivity with instructors, and difficulty adjusting to family needs had both an emotional and academic toll. Strategies for adjusting to this new context included initiating remote study and hangout sessions with peers, as well as self-learning. In these and other strategies, students used technologies in different ways and for different purposes than they had previously. Supporting qualitative insight about adaptive responses were quantitative findings that students who used more problem-focused forms of coping reported fewer mental health symptoms over the course of the pandemic, even though they perceived their stress as more severe.
“I like to build things and stuff like that. I like to see it in person and feel it. So the fact that everything was online…. I’m just basically reading all the time. I just couldn’t learn that way”
Insomnia has been pretty hard for me . . . I would spend a lot of time lying in bed not doing anything when I had a lot of homework to do the next day. So then I would become stressed about whether I’ll be able to finish that homework or not.”
“It was challenging … being independent and then being pushed back home. It’s a huge change because now you have more rules again”
“For a few of my classes I feel like actually [I] was self-learning because sometimes it’s hard to sit through hours of lectures and watch it.”
“I would initiate… we have a study group chat and every day I would be like ‘Hey I’m going to be on at this time starting at this time.’ So then I gave them time to all have the room open for Zoom and stuff. Okay and then any time after that they can join and then said I [would] wait like maybe 30 minutes or even an hour…. And then people join and then we work maybe … till midnight, a little bit past midnight”