The Covid-19 pandemic and mental health of first-year college students: Examining the effect of Covid-19 stressors using longitudinal data

PLoS One. 2021 Mar 5;16(3):e0247999. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0247999. eCollection 2021.


Purpose: The Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented stress to students and educational institutions across the world. We aimed to estimate the effect of the pandemic on the mental health of college students.

Methods: We used data on 419 first-year students (ages 18-20) at a large public university in North Carolina both before (October 2019-February 2020) and after (June/July 2020) the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. After evaluating descriptive data on mental health and stressors by students' demographic characteristics, we estimated the associations between Covid-19 stressors (including work reductions, health, distanced learning difficulties and social isolation) and mental health symptoms and severity controlling for students' pre-pandemic mental health, psychosocial resources, and demographic characteristics.

Results: We found that the prevalence of moderate-severe anxiety increased from 18.1% before the pandemic to 25.3% within four months after the pandemic began; and the prevalence of moderate-severe depression increased from 21.5% to 31.7%. White, female and sexual/gender minority (SGM) students were at highest risk of increases in anxiety symptoms. Non-Hispanic (NH) Black, female, and SGM students were at highest risk of increases in depression symptoms. General difficulties associated with distanced learning and social isolation contributed to the increases in both depression and anxiety symptoms. However, work reductions as well as Covid-19 diagnosis and hospitalization of oneself, family members or friends were not associated with increases in depression or anxiety symptoms.

Conclusion: Colleges may be able to reduce the mental health consequences of Covid-19 by investing in resources to reduce difficulties with distance learning and reduce social isolation during the pandemic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / etiology*
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Depression / etiology*
  • Depression / psychology
  • Education, Distance
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mental Health*
  • North Carolina / epidemiology
  • Physical Distancing
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Isolation
  • Students* / psychology
  • Universities
  • Young Adult