Mental health has long been an issue on college campuses. One in four college students has a diagnosable mental health condition, a trend that has only worsened in recent years.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the college mental health crisis. Undergraduate students are screening for depression and anxiety at higher rates, and data show suicidal ideation has increased dramatically among college-aged adults as a result of the pandemic.
However, one group in particular has been hit hard by the pandemic: first-year college students.
Since the pandemic began, anxiety and depression have become significantly more prevalent among first-year students at UNC, according to a study published earlier this month in the journal PLOS ONE.
The study, led by Jane Cooley Fruehwirth, an associate professor of economics at UNC, found that the prevalence of moderate to severe anxiety in first-year college students increased 40 percent, while the prevalence of moderate to severe depression increased by 48 percent.
Perhaps most notably, the study found that difficulties associated with distanced learning and social isolation contributed most substantially to the observed increases in anxiety and depression among first-year students. Just four months into the pandemic, one-quarter of students reported moderate-severe anxiety and nearly one-third reported moderate-severe depression, the study found.
The study also highlights the disproportionate impacts the pandemic has had on students from different backgrounds.
The pandemic’s effects were especially pronounced for Black students, who experienced an 89 percent increase in depression. Hispanic students, first-generation students and sexual and gender minority students experienced the largest difficulties with distance learning, the study found. In addition, social isolation increased significantly for Black and sexual and gender minority students.
These findings underscore an ongoing problem for colleges and universities nationwide. The first year of college can be difficult for many students, as they adjust to increased academic pressure, a new social environment and newfound independence. Now, forced to navigate college in a socially distanced world, first-year students are struggling to cope with these difficulties while simultaneously unable to put down roots on campus.
Going forward, UNC must do more to support first-year students — pandemic or not. Students cannot succeed academically unless their basic needs are met. In fact, studies show that students with higher levels of psychological distress have lower GPAs, lower academic self-efficacy and lower retention rates than their peers.
The University must reach out specifically to first-year students — especially marginalized students, who are more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression but less likely to seek counseling. Existing programs, such as the CAPS Multicultural Health Program, prioritize the needs of Black students and students of color. But if these communities don't know these resources exist — or don't trust the University to provide them — then how can they get the help that they need?
Meanwhile, the effects of social isolation can be addressed by fostering community among first-year students, especially since students can’t form connections in person. The University has created new initiatives, such as the Carolina Away program, to support first-year students amid the pandemic. However, the transition from high school to college is difficult even without the added stress of a public health crisis, and this support shouldn’t go away when the pandemic ends.
Above all, the University must recognize that the student body is not a monolith — the needs of first-year students are different than the needs of seniors. Even among first-year students, experiences vary greatly by demographic and individual characteristics.
These students need our help — the University should do as much as possible to support them.
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