Pandemic exposed mental health divide among college students, Dartmouth researchers say
Using smartphone data, he and other researchers have been able to track the highs and lows many students experienced over the past two years — from rushing off campus at the start of the pandemic, to feelings of isolation while taking classes online, to returning to campus and having new social interactions.
Campbell began studying the habits of about 200 Dartmouth student volunteers in 2017. Each student was introduced to an app called StudentLife — which Campbell helped to develop — that sits in the background of their phones, quietly collecting data on their phone usage, sleep duration and sedentary behavior. The app also delivers weekly assessments so students can report updates about their stress levels and mood.
“Before there was any sign of the pandemic, I was really interested in the rising rates of depression in the general student population,” Campbell said in an interview.
When the pandemic hit, researchers started using StudentLife to ask students about their concerns surrounding the coronavirus. They discovered students were feeling more anxious and depressed than they had in previous years as they slept less and spent more time on their phones.
Researchers also learned that students most concerned about the pandemic — users were asked questions about how worried they were for themselves or their friends and family — reported higher levels of stress. They also traveled less, slept more and spent more time on their phones.
With the behavioral data, researchers used machine learning to predict whether students fell into a high-concern or low-concern group, demonstrating the potential that smartphone technology and artificial intelligence have to detect mental health issues, said Subigya Nepal, a PhD candidate at Dartmouth and first author of the study. Still, I have cautioned this body of research is based on 180 students at a small school in New England.
“We don’t know how generalizing it is,” Nepal said.
It is unclear why some students had higher concerns about the virus than others — researchers did not analyze demographic data — but the information gleaned over the course of the study does provide insight into how the pandemic has affected students.
With the study ending this year, Campbell said he hopes to make the data set public so the academic community can “mine different behaviors we haven’t looked into.”
The pandemic has unleashed a flood of public concern around mental health, particularly among young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this year warned of an accelerating crisis among adolescents, with more than 4 in 10 teens reporting feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness.
Among 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed in 2020, about 25 percent had seriously considered suicide, according to the CDC. Schools including Dartmouth, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Stanford University have been affected in recent months by student suicides.
College-aged students, who had already reported higher levels of anxiety and depression than other age groups in the years before the pandemic, fell deeper into emotional duration after the world declared a public health emergency.
Even with most campuses operating normally, the crisis continues. School officials have responded by expanding counseling center hours, canceling classes for “mental health days” and even inviting emotional support dogs to campus to help students cope.