Student mental health declined at start of pandemic, Dartmouth study shows
A report revealed that students experienced increasing levels of anxiety and depression beginning in winter 2020, just before the pandemic went global.
Student volunteers were tracked through a mobile app on their phone during their four years at Dartmouth.
A paper authored by Dartmouth researchers and published this month found that the COVID-19 pandemic increased symptoms of stress during the spring 2020 lockdown. The paper was based on data collected from 217 participants — members of the Class of 2021 — by a smartphone application called StudentLife.
The paper finds that “[i]n the initial lockdown phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, people spent more time on their phones, were more sedentary, visited fewer locations and exhibited increased symptoms of anxiety and depression.” Additionally, the paper finds that “people continued to exhibit very similar changes in both mental health and behaviors” in the spring months of 2020. The data referenced in the paper was collected from September 2017 to June 2020.
Computer science professor and senior paper author Andrew Campbell was motivated to determine whether mobile phones could be used to “predict” changes in mental health by tracking factors like sleep patterns and social interaction. According to Campbell, this study grew out of a desire to look at student experiences with mental health when they came to the “very competitive academic environment” at Dartmouth.
“Young people, if they’re going to experience anxiety or depression or bipolar or psychosis, [they] are going to have an episode in those [college-aged] years,” Campbell said.
Researchers began collecting data in the fall of 2017. Students volunteered to participate in the study and were selected regardless of their mental health history. Data was collected year-round, including during academic terms, breaks between terms and over the summer.
Campbell said that researchers noticed early on in the study that anxiety and stress levels in students rose two weeks before they returned to Dartmouth from summer, winter or spring breaks, which he hypothesized might be due to the “anticipation of coming back to the rigors of the academic term.”
The study also observed a peak in stress levels around the time of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, which, along with approaching final exams and increasing COVID-19 cases, was cited as corresponding with higher depression and anxiety levels.
A previous paper using the data from the StudentLife study was published in June 2020 and concluded that “[c]ompared with prior academic terms, individuals in the Winter 2020 term [just before the COVID-19 pandemic caused shutdowns nationwide] were more sedentary, anxious and depressed,” adding that “a wide variety of behaviors, including increased phone usage, decreased physical activity and fewer locations visited, were associated with fluctuations in COVID-19 news reporting.”
The recent paper also looked at Google Trends, a website that compiles the amount of times a topic is Googled, to track when people were looking for information about “COVID fatigue” — exhaustion due to the combination of the “effects of the quarantine and loss of social connection” as well as “being frazzled with remote classes,” according to Campbell.
“In the paper, interest in COVID fatigue is linearly associated with reported depression and anxiety levels,” Dante Mack ’20, the first author of the paper, said.
Shayne Miller ’22 said he noticed around midterms during the summer of 2020 that he was starting to feel fatigue setting in. He took a four-course term the previous spring and was doing the same that summer, explaining that he felt the toll of “trying to keep up with the pace and rigor of Dartmouth with the uncertainty of the world.”
“As soon as I heard the term ‘COVID fatigue,’ I was like yes, [that] sums up,” Miller said, adding that while some professors have been accommodating, the workload of some classes seemed to get more difficult as time went on.
Dartmouth Mental Health Student Union director of peer support Felicia Ragucci ’22 said that the group’s peer support program has had to incorporate pandemic-related issues in its training, and that they have had to grapple with accessibility issues inherent to running peer support services online.
“We did add an entire module about pandemic concerns, and how to navigate that and how to support people who are feeling isolated,” Ragucci said, adding that “feeling disconnected and isolated” is a “major theme that has come up in peer support.”
Campbell, who said his brother’s mental health struggles in college gave him a “personal reason” to focus on student mental health in his research, argued that “there’s a need to start thinking differently” about the way that the College treats student mental health “beyond the systems and structures that we have.” He added that he hopes the use of mobile technology “will ultimately help to revolutionize the way we track mental health” and help students access mental health resources “directly from their phone,” and also praised the College’s decision to partner with the JED Foundation, which works on youth suicide prevention, starting this fall.
Campbell helped to develop the StudentLife application in 2013. The app, which is made available to participating students, has been used “across the country” and at other colleges to study community-level mental health, Campbell said.
StudentLife uses machine learning algorithms to “infer behaviors” such as sleep duration, disrupted sleep, mobility patterns and screen time, Campbell said, adding that the application also used the smartphone’s microphone to track the frequency of conversations with others. The app also prompts students participating in the study to complete a survey each week about possible symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to the paper.
As for the future of the project, Campbell said that data will continue to be collected from the 217 students for another year and that there are “many papers” that will be based on the data as it is analyzed. Data collected in June 2021 indicates that anxiety and depression levels “remain elevated” compared to pre-pandemic levels, Campbell wrote in an email statement.
“This raises this interesting question, which is, what is the new normal coming out of the pandemic, what is the sort of residual impact of having gone through this on young people,” Campbell said.
Ragucci said that in planning upcoming training for MHU staff, she is hoping to include a module on grief.
“I think we’ve experienced a lot of loss in a lot of different ways over the past year, and that has definitely come up in peer support,” Ragucci said, noting that the group offered emergency peer support in the wake of student deaths.
Campbell said that the StudentLife app was updated last spring to include survey questions about students’ views of the impacts of COVID-19 on themselves and their families, and that this data will be used in future papers. He said that his goal is to release the data to other researchers so that they potentially find a new aspect of the data that Campbell and his fellow researchers have overlooked.
“My hope is that, ultimately, results from [the] StudentLife study at Dartmouth will have some impact not only at Dartmouth, in terms of the [College] administration and how we deal with mental health, but also at other institutions,” Campbell said.