CG REPORT 5: The Impact of COVID-19 Restrictions on University Students’ Mental Health
Restrictions affecting mental health and well-being can significantly affect vulnerable populations that include university students. Therefore, we undertook a scoping review by searching LitCovid, the WHO Covid-19 database, Google Scholar and bibliographies of retrieved articles for systematic reviews that included data on depression and anxiety in university students during the Covid-19 pandemic. We found nine systematic reviews (including two preprints) that varied from five included studies to 89.
Reviews consistently reported high prevalence rates of anxiety and depression amongst university and college students. Rates of depression and anxiety were higher in those with financial difficulties, in non-Chinese students, in older students, and with females. In the most extensive review to date the pooled prevalence of depression was 34% (95%CI: 30-38%, 52 studies, n=1,277,755, I2 100%). The prevalence of anxiety was 32% (95% CI: 26-38%, 69 studies I2 100%). Anxiety was also found to be higher in older students, in those living alone. Only one review concluded the evidence does not suggest a widespread negative effect on mental health in COVID-19 compared with previous years.
The overall impact of COVID-19 on the mental health and wellbeing of university students is substantial. Long term longitudinal studies are required to track trends in students’ mental health and identify those risk factors that are amenable to intervention. Inaction when it comes to addressing the mental health burden in students is not an option; the promotion of mental wellbeing should therefore be a priority for universities and colleges.
Quality of Evidence
The quality of the short-term evidence was rated as low to moderate, and the evidence for the medium to long term impact as low (the prevalence estimates may change substantially if further high-quality evidence becomes available). The evidence from current studies has several limitations. First, the data is primarily limited to 2020, and only a handful of studies report late 2020, and more data are needed. There are very few countries that report data from more than one country. This could be due to a large volume of unpublished data being missed. To encompass the grey literature, systematic reviews should therefore widen their search strategies. Similar to our report on children and adolescents, the pooled prevalence was highly heterogeneous. A variety of factors affect these estimates, including the sampling techniques, the timing of the survey and the instruments used. None of these factors should, however, trivialize the current findings – the mental health problem amongst university students is severe, substantial and potentially long-lasting.