When Social Isolation Is Nothing New: A Longitudinal Study Psychological Distress During COVID-19 Among University Students With and Without Preexisting Mental Health Concerns
The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) global pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on college and university campuses internationally. Postsecondary students, who were already a developmentally vulnerable population, are now facing additional new challenges, which could lead to increased mental health concerns. However, there is a paucity of research on the psychological impacts of COVID-19, or who may be most at risk, among postsecondary students. To address these gaps in the literature, we recontacted a sample of 773 postsecondary students who previously completed a survey on student mental health in May 2019, again in May 2020. Students filled out an online survey at both time points, reporting on their recent stressful experiences and mental health. Although we expected that students with preexisting mental health concerns would show increased psychological distress during the pandemic, this hypothesis was not supported. Instead, repeated-measures analyses demonstrated that students with preexisting mental health concerns showed improving or similar mental health during the pandemic. In contrast, students without preexisting mental health concerns were more likely to show declining mental health, which coincided with increased social isolation among these students. Our findings underscore that colleges and universities will not only need to continue to support students with preexisting mental health needs but also prioritize early prevention and intervention programming to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on students with increasing psychological distress, potentially stemming from increasing social isolation in response to the pandemic.
Adopted from University of Toronto