How are college students coping with the stress of coronavirus?

Illustration of a stressed college student sitting on floor.Photo/iStock

Under normal conditions, the risk of depression and anxiety among college students is high as they transition to adulthood. But these are not normal conditions. Students around the world have had to suddenly leave campus, take classes remotely and abandon their usual interactions with friends, all because of a global public health crisis.

A Brandeis psychology professor and her lab want to know how students are coping with the unprecedented stress that the COVID-19 pandemic presents.

Professor Hannah Snyder and her lab are following 150 Brandeis undergraduates ages 18-22 over the next two months to study their stress levels and behavior. Participants are detailing their daily activities and moods, and the responses will help the researchers identify helpful and harmful coping strategies under the current circumstances.

Clinicians, such as counselors and social workers, could use the study findings to identify people who are at high risk for stress, as well as the right therapeutic treatments.

“What we’re trying to understand is how people are coping in different ways, and how that predicts mental health outcomes,” Snyder said. “A lot of this is unknown. It is an unprecedented situation.”

Snyder expects to have initial analysis in the coming weeks and more detailed results and analysis when the study concludes at the end of May. Participants answered an in-depth initial survey and are providing daily responses to 25 questions related to their activities, and their levels of stress and anxiety. They will provide more in-depth responses every two weeks.

Snyder’s lab, which includes three doctoral candidates in psychology and neuroscience, a graduate student in psychology, and undergraduate research assistants, pulled together the study in about a week. The process usually takes a couple of months.

“It has been a whirlwind. We have been adapting to the changes while also shutting down other studies,” said doctoral candidate Alyssa Fassett-Carman. “The silver lining here is that we can research how students are adapting to this big overarching stressor that’s affecting every aspect of their life.”

Typically, Snyder’s lab conducts in-person studies that focus on stress, anxiety and depression in people in their late teens to early twenties. When the coronavirus suddenly halted the lab’s other work, they quickly adjusted to the circumstances.

“Everything we were working on had to stop. It was obvious we should do a new study online and do it quickly,” Snyder said. “We felt we could make a contribution, but we knew we had to get out there pretty quickly. People are pretty good at adjusting to a new normal, even when it’s radical.”

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