The Psychological Impact of COVID-19 on College Students

Written by Ariana Pirzadeh, B.S.
Edited by Sarah Banducci, Ph.D., Ryan Bell, Ph.D., and Rachel Haake, Ph.D.

Making it to class on time, balancing social life and academics, finding time to do laundry, studying for exams–these are the types of challenges a college student anticipates. All of these tasks are stressful on their own, let alone when a global pandemic is added to the mix. Trying to manage those day-to-day tasks, while focusing on daunting issues such as the health of loved ones and not knowing the future course of this disease, has created a serious concern for students’ mental health.

Observing the Impact of COVID-19

A recent study led by Matthew Browning, professor of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at Clemson University, examined the psychological effects of the early stages of the pandemic on students and determined demographic risk factors that may determine the severity of those effects.

“A number of studies in the past decade have highlighted students’ mental health issues as one of the most significant challenges facing colleges and universities,” Browning said. “Rates of depression, suicide, and associated risk factors have all been growing on campuses across America, and that was before the pandemic.”

This study was a nationwide collaboration including the involvement of Lincoln Larson, a professor of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University and published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers used open-ended and structured survey questions to ascertain students’ experiences in March and April 2020, and what had changed in terms of their feelings and behaviors. With feedback from approximately 2,500 students in seven different states, they found that for many students, various negative psychological factors were prominent including anxiety, stress, isolation, and lack of motivation.

Using a statistical technique that allows for big picture trends to be derived from questionnaire data, the students were classified into three levels of psychological impact: high, moderate, and low. Of the respondents, 45% were classified as having a high level of psychological impact, 40% moderate, and 14% low. The data demonstrated that the greatest risk factors for higher psychological impact were being a woman or non-Hispanic Asian, having fair/poor health, belonging to below-average socioeconomic status, and knowing someone diagnosed with COVID-19. On the flip side, lower levels of psychological impact were associated with being non-Hispanic White, having above-average socioeconomic status, and spending at least 2 hours outdoors or less than 8 hours per day on screens.

Treatment for Ongoing Effects and Future Implications

Students living through this pandemic are facing mental health challenges and while much is being done to address this reality, more support is needed. This study builds a picture of the factors that put students at greater risk for experiencing negative psychological consequences of the pandemic. Some of these factors are systemic problems that require state and federal legislators to intervene. However, other factors such as more time outdoors and less time in front of a screen, are more widely accessible behavioral modifications. Additionally, the study urges university administrators to be cognizant of the psychological impact on students and how their studies have been affected during, and after the acute stages of the pandemic. There may not always be clear solutions and treatments, but understanding what individuals are going through goes a long way.

“Many college students were not doing well before the pandemic,” Browning said. “Our study, and others recent studies like it, suggest COVID-19 is only making things worse. The pandemic is bringing increased awareness to an ongoing issue in our society, and I hope that administrators continue to concentrate on providing mental health services as students get vaccinated and classes return to normal.”


Browning MHEM, Larson LR, Sharaievska I, Rigolon A, McAnirlin O, Mullenbach L, et al. (2021) Psychological impacts from COVID-19 among university students: Risk factors across seven states in the United States. PLoS ONE 16(1): e0245327.

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