No matter where college students are living and learning, the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted daily life. As a result, the well-being and mental health of students is of keen interest to parents, families, and universities worldwide. Between November 1 and 16, 2020, the Office of Undergraduate Education (OUE) Research team invited all Duke undergraduates to share their experiences with academics, social relationships, stress, mental health, and well-being during the fall semester, and 1,015 students responded (15.4% response rate). To provide context and a point of comparison for student responses during COVID-19, we drew on data from previous research conducted at Duke during more typical times.
The results show a complex picture of difficulties and challenges, as well as areas of resilience. The findings highlight the importance of supportive, meaningful relationships with others, and the key role that parents and families can play in supporting students during this unprecedented time. Some key take-home messages from the study:
- Social distancing measures are crucial to limiting the spread of COVID-19, but are also presenting challenges for social connectedness. Loneliness and social isolation are a significant problem for students during the pandemic, with almost half of respondents rating social isolation as “very” or “extremely” stressful. The highest percentage of students (33%) reported feeling lonely in class, followed by in the evening, while studying, during free time, and at bed time.
- There is some indication that students are having a harder time making friends, and that they are less satisfied with their closest friendships at Duke as compared to a typical semester. Still, students report that they’ve found other students that they really connect with.
- Social support is a key protective factor against loneliness, and the vast majority of respondents (92%) said they had at least one person they could go to for help and for emotional support. Parents, siblings, and other relatives were listed as key sources of support for students—for example, of the students who said they had someone they could go to for help and emotional support, 72% said they would go to a parent for help, and 64% said they would go to a parent for emotional support.
- Students indicated a high level of concern about their mental health, and a significant proportion of respondents indicated that they had experienced moderate (24%) or severe (21%) symptoms of depression and anxiety over the past two weeks. Just under one-fifth of respondents (18%) indicated that they felt overwhelmed and unable to handle the demands of life fairly often or very often over the past month—somewhat higher than in a typical semester.
- There are many features of the pandemic context that can be challenging, and we asked students to tell us what were the most challenging and stressful for them last semester. A majority of respondents said that both the lack of breaks and the compressed timeline for the semester was a significant source of stress. Fewer respondents (28%) said that pandemic public health measures, including masking and physical distancing, were a significant source of stress. More than half of respondents said that current events, including the 2020 US election and government responses to the pandemic, were a significant source of stress.
- Despite the challenges of learning during the pandemic, students continued to report high levels of enthusiasm and gusto for their academic work (sometimes referred to as academic engagement).
- Likewise, students’ feelings of belonging to Duke—a key predictor of retention and student success—do not appear to have decreased as a result of the pandemic.
Our goal in OUE Research is to work with partners across campus to leverage research evidence to inform campus decision-making. Over the winter break and into the spring semester, we have shared findings with campus stakeholders including senior administration, staff, faculty, and students. Units across campus are using these findings to guide practice in Spring 2021, for example, supporting the student-advocated decision to build a “wellness day” into the calendar and forming a committee of campus programming experts to examine opportunities for increased COVID-safe activities and events for students. As the pandemic continues to evolve and (hopefully) wane in the coming months, we will continue to track important indicators of student mental health and well-being and share what we learn with the campus community.
 Comparative data were drawn from the Student Resilience and Well-Being Project (2014–2018), a four-institution research–practice partnership funded by the Duke Endowment, and led by (in alphabetical order by campus) Steven Asher, Rick Hoyle, Mark Leary, Tim Strauman, and Molly Weeks at Duke; Lauren Stutts at Davidson College; Kerstin Blomquist, Beth Pontari, and Cinnamon Stetler at Furman University; and Debra Terrell at Johnson C. Smith University.
DukeReach directs students, faculty, staff, families, and others to the resources available to help a student in need. If you are concerned about a student's health or behavior, please complete a DukeReach report via the web, or call 919-681-2455. We would be happy to assist you.