A multi-institutional team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, and the University of California, San Diego found that 61 per cent of university students surveyed were at risk of clinical depression, twice the incidence before the pandemic.
More than USD 200 billion is invested annually by the United States in efforts to treat and manage mental wellbeing. For those experiencing signs of depression or anxiety, the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic has only deepened the chasm. This violation has widened as well, impacting more individuals.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been drastic shifts in physical activity, sleep, and time consumption. Physical activity disturbances arose during the pandemic as a leading risk factor for depression.
Importantly, there was a slightly lower risk for those who retained their exercise patterns than those who witnessed the substantial reductions in physical activity induced by the pandemic. Although physical activity resumed in early summer, there was no automatic turnaround in mental well-being. The study results are available online in the February 10 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Silvia Saccardo, assistant professor in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at CMU and senior author on the paper, said, ‘There is an alarming increase in the incidence of anxiety and depression among young adults, especially among college students.’ “The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis in this vulnerable population.”
Students at greater risk of developing depression due to shifts in lifestyle habits
Data obtained from 682 college students who used a mobile app and a Fitbit wearable tracker for spring 2019, fall 2019, and spring 2020 was reviewed by Saccardo and her colleagues, Osea Giuntella, Kelly Hyde, and Sally Sadoff.
In addition to significant decreases in well-being, their findings indicate large disruptions in physical activity, sleep, and computer/phone screen time and social contact. This collection of data spans the emergence of social isolation during the early months of the pandemic, providing an insight into the causes in this age group that intensified mental health disorders.
Saccardo said, “We used this unique dataset to study what factors are predictive of changes in depression,” “[In the dataset,] we can see that mental health gets worse as the semester progresses, but it is dramatically worse in 2020 compared to the previous cohort.”
The team found that, as the pandemic continued, participants who practised healthy lifestyles before the pandemic, scheduled physical exercise and active social life were at a higher risk of depression.
As the leading risk factor for decreased mental health, the researchers point to a reduction in physical activity. However, restoration of physical activity was not met with a recovery of mental well-being.
“We randomized a group of individuals to receive an incentive to exercise. While our short intervention increased physical activity among this group, it did not have an impact on mental health. These results open up a lot of opportunities for future research,” said Saccardo.
“It is an interesting puzzle for future studies to understand why we do not see an asymmetric relationship between the resumption of physical activity and mental health,” the professor added.
This research documents how COVID-19 has generated large disruptions in mental well-being among college students, a vulnerable population.
“The results are generalizable to the young adult population, a highly exposed group which has exhibited rising depression rates over the last decades and was dramatically exposed to the disruptions caused by the current epidemic,” said Giuntella, assistant professor of economics at Pitt.