According to a study published Tuesday that was co-led by the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education, the COVID-19 pandemic has had “looming negative impacts” on the mental health of university students.
Through a pair of questionnaires, the study surveyed both undergraduate and graduate students from universities that constitute the Student Experience in the Research University, or SERU, Consortium, including UC Berkeley. Compared to a 2019 SERU survey of graduate students, the report recorded a significant spike in students who screened positive for major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
In the most recent survey, 35% of undergraduates and 32% of graduate and professional students screened positive for major depressive disorder, while 39% of respondents from both cohorts screened positive for generalized anxiety disorder.
Both disorders were more common among low-income students, LGBTQ+ students and students from other marginalized groups, as well as among students majoring in arts or the humanities.
Additionally, the report found that more than half of students who did not adapt well to remote learning struggled with anxiety, depression or both. With the onset of an all-online fall semester, study co-author and campus researcher Igor Chirikov said in an email that this presents a “real challenge” for universities.
The report’s purpose was to guide campus policies, according to Chirikov, aiming to improve student mental health at SERU universities.
“According to the recent surveys of US university presidents, student mental health is one of the most important concerns for them during the pandemic and beyond,” Chirikov said in the email. “Getting the relevant data about student mental health is a crucial first step.”
The report contains a host of recommendations for universities, including allocating more resources toward telecounseling services, working alongside students in order to develop new strategies and offering preventative activities such as stress-reduction workshops.
Coye Cheshire, a social psychology professor at the campus School of Information, emphasized that remote learning deprives students of the everyday collection of small, informal interactions, such as talking between classes or catching up over lunch, the lack of which can accumulate and take a toll on students’ mental health.
“Supporting students of course includes robust and well-designed online courses and tools,” Cheshire said in an email. “But, I think its equally important to create social spaces and significant breaks that can help prevent online video conferencing fatigue and burnout.”
UC Berkeley’s ASUC is holding an online mental health week until Friday, which aims to publicize resources offered by various campus groups. According to ASUC Senator Rebecca Soo, the week is composed of hourly events and brings together individuals and campus organizations to speak about the “wealth of information” available to prepare students mentally for the coming semester.
Soo added that she hopes faculty members will adopt more lenient policies regarding attendance and asynchronous learning, a recommendation echoed by the study, which encourages course staff to take a compassionate approach to drops in student achievement.
University Health Services is also working to make more resources available remotely to students, according to Soo, and already offers short-term virtual counseling and handouts on its coronavirus webpage for self-care during the pandemic.