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COVID-19 & Depression Among College Students

June 21st, 2021

According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, about 51.5 million adults in the United States experienced some form of mental health disorder in 2019. Young adults are disproportionately affected by these issues, with the same data showing nearly a third of 18–25-year-olds have mental health challenges. Collaborative research from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of California, San Diego, suggests that this issue is only worsening as a result of COVID-19.

The study, which surveyed college students both before and during the pandemic, found that 61% of its participants were at risk for clinical depression as of June 2020. This is nearly double the rate that was seen before the pandemic. Using data from the semester in which classes were moved online, the researchers also observed the following changes in lifestyle among their participants:

  • Average steps decreased from 10,000 to 4,600 steps per day
  • Physical activity duration decreased from 4.4 to 2.9 hours per day
  • Time spent sleeping increased by about 25 to 30 minutes per night
  • Social time decreased by over half to less than 30 minutes per day
  • Screen time doubled to more than 5 hours per day (excluding class/work)

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that a large decrease in physical activity was the most significant predictor of depression among students during the pandemic. 

To find out if an intervention could help reduce depression among students, the researchers randomly selected some participants to receive incentives upon meeting a daily step goal. Although this intervention did result in a substantial increase in steps and physical activity, it did not lead to an improvement in mental health among the participants. The researchers suggest that the relationship between physical activity and depression is more complex than initially expected and that more studies are needed to fully understand the role of physical activity in depression during the pandemic.

Interested in mental health research? Learn more at Pitt+Me.