When introducing herself to parents of incoming freshmen at Loyola University, Asia Wong used to explain her role on campus in a straightforward manner. “My job is to make sure students are healthy, happy and well,” she would say.

Then COVID-19 came calling in 2020, and Wong’s job, as the university’s director of counseling and health services, required a more verbose description to assure parents that Loyola’s support system is strong enough to help counter the emotional toll the virus has taken on college students.

Wong and her counterparts saw a noticeable uptick in anxiety and depression as the pandemic lingered into the fall semester and students found themselves still detached from normal campus life. 

While college students are not considered at high risk for dangerous outcomes if they contract the virus, they are susceptible to the collateral damage caused by social distancing, lockdowns and other measures to prevent the spread. Many classes are still virtual, and life is anything but normal as the threat of the virus lurks in the halls of learning.

“The pandemic has had very real impacts on the structure of their lives,” Wong said in a telephone interview to discuss the pandemic’s toll on campus life. “Not being able to go to class, hang out with friends or do other things that students normally do can have a negative impact on mental health.”

Wong’s assertions are supported by national studies highlighting an issue that has been drowned out by other devastating aspects of the pandemic, which has killed more than a half-million people in the United States. There is now both anecdotal and scientific evidence showing significant changes in college students’ physical activity, sleep, computer screen time and social interaction that coincide with large declines in well-being.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California San Diego examined data from 682 college students who used a smartphone app and a wearable tracker for the spring and fall semesters of 2019 and the spring semester of 2020.

The study found that at the onset of the pandemic, the average number of steps per day among the young adults declined from 10,000 to 4,600; sleep increased by up to 30 minutes a night; time spent socializing declined by one hour to less than 30 minutes; and screen time more than doubled, to over five hours per day.

Published in February by the National Academy of Sciences, the study found that 61% of university students surveyed were at risk of clinical depression, two times higher than pre-pandemic levels. It determined that a disruption to physical activity is a leading risk factor for depression during the pandemic.

“There is an alarming rise in the rate of anxiety and depression among young adults, especially among college students,” the study’s lead author Silvia Saccardo told the Carnegie Mellon news outlet. “The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis in this vulnerable population.”

Percy Castillo, a 19-year-old Loyola sophomore studying mass communications and philosophy, is one of many whose college experience has been turned upside down by the pandemic.

“It’s been tough because I’ve been super anxious,” Castillo said. “I expected to have a standard freshman year, but that didn’t happen.”

Castillo attended Mardi Gras parades “like most every college student” last year and feared spreading the virus to family members in Gulfport, Mississippi. The lockdown that followed was downright depressing.

“It’s hard not going out, not seeing all of your friends,” Castillo said. “Because of the coronavirus, my anxiety and depression worsened.”

Wong said these times can cause an array of problems for students that they may not realize is attributable to the pandemic.

“I try to help them understand that this is why your body hurts or why you have trouble focusing,” she said, noting that recognizing the early indicators of stress can help mitigate its impacts.

Campus leaders have also stressed the importance of anxiety management techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, muscle relaxation, paying attention to and changing negative self-talk and other holistic strategies. Many college campuses also offer stress management workshops that can help students cope.

The general rule of thumb for Loyola students is outlined in Wong’s invitation to an anxiety management workshop: “Learn how to focus on the present rather than getting lost in anxiety about the future or regrets about the past. Find ways to attend to your emotions without magnifying problems or getting lost in criticism and self-judgment.”

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