6 Tips for College Student Depression and Loneliness

By: Tonya Mead, PhD, MBA, M.Ed, School-based Psychologist

It’s back to school time! Are you worried about your college kid? Concerned that COVID-19 has dampened their positive perspective on life?  You are not alone. Several studies have concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic is associated with increased calls to mental health hotlines. Researchers, when comparing data before and after peak COVID-19 lockdown mandates found there were more deaths from suicide than COVID-19 infections. Further, researchers determined that substance abuse relapses were more prevalent than before the COVID-19 outbreak.

In the spring 2020, Browning, Larson, Sharaievska, et al conducted a survey and found that in spite of these trends, “college students are among the most strongly affected by COVID-19 because of uncertainty regarding academic success, future careers, and social life during college.” (Please see the PLOS Journal, January 7, 2021).

Of the approximate 14,000 university students recruited to participate across an array of seven state universities nationwide, 2,534 eventually participated. Browning’s findings were replicated by Sarah Ketchen Lipson, a Boston University (BU) researcher and assistant professor of health at BU School of Public Health. Lipson surveyed approximately 33,000 students from around the country. She found, “half of students in fall 2020, screened positive for depression and/or anxiety.”

Results of the Browning Study about Depression and Loneliness among College Students

About 22% of the survey participants felt a lack of motivation, they were unmotivated, finding it hard to concentrate, felt they were unproductive, procrastinated more frequently and became lazy. Seventeen percent experienced anxiety, about 15% felt overwhelmed while 13% felt lonely. The remaining opened-ended responses were negative emotions varied by intensity and severity to worried about self or others, to being scared, paranoid and panicked, feeling trapped, and feelings of boredom, as examples.

Similar Findings in Changes in Adult Behavior due to COVID-19

This data fails to present something that I haven’t already known, you might chuckle to yourself. Well, you are partially correct. This data is similar to the findings among adults. During COVID-19 studies show that adults reported decreases in physical activity, and increases in food consumption and binge drinking. (Please see MedRXiv.org posted to the PLOS Journal, 2020). But let’s not digress. In getting back to the topic of this post, incidences of depression and loneliness of college-aged students, please refer to the subsequent section.

Key Implications for Reducing College Student Depression and Loneliness

  1. Excessive mobile phone, internet, desktop and social media screen time may negatively impact mental health. Often adolescents, teens and young adults use screen time as a coping mechanism to reduce anxiety. Unfortunately, researchers warn that “excessive use of Smartphones and other screen-based technology inadvertently [exposes them to] learn more about the virus from the news, which fuels anxiety… thus causing a downward spiral.
  2. Excessive screen time for entertainment supplants available time for healthy in-person social interaction and outdoor recreation. There are positive impacts of spending time in outdoor activities and nature. Researchers have found that outside recreational activities can improve psychosocial wellbeing and even lower infection rates and mortality. (Please see MedRXiv.org posted to the PLOS Journal, 2020).

As someone who studied under the old school principles that placed considerable value on the high quality of hard book sources, I added these recommendations adapted from the NY Times bestselling book, Change your Brain Change your Life, by Daniel G. Amen a clinical neuroscientist, child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Recommendations for Reducing College Student Depression and Loneliness

  1. Find opportunities to bond with your child. Michael Resnick published an article in The Journal of American Medical Association, 1997 demonstrating that “teenager who felt loved and connected to their parents had a significantly lower incidence of teenage pregnancy, drug use, violence and suicide.’ (page 69).
  2. Take time to touch your child.  “Touch is critical to life itself,” writes Dr. Amen. We know this to be true as we pet our dog or caress our cat. So too, humans thrive on physical contact.  Infants deprived of human touch “have shown marked overall decreased activity across the whole brain.” (page 73). He writes further, “massage, it seems helps asthmatics breathe easier, boosts immune function in HIV-positive patients….lowers anxiety in depressed adolescents… elders exhibit less depression, lower stress hormones and less loneliness.” (page 74).
  3. Utilize aromatherapy. Purchase lavender scented air fresheners, candles and essential oils.  Dr. Amen reported upon research showing that the oil from lavender flowers “when used properly helped people to feel less stressed and less depressed. It also enhanced sleep. (page 75).
  4. Build a mental storage of positive memories. Positive memories can induce the brain to release positive chemicals that evoke happiness, love, peace, serenity, joy, and pleasure; those that are strikingly similar to the ones released when they were originally imprinted upon the brain. (page 77).
  5. Practice physical exercise. According to Dr. Amen, “exercise allows more of the natural amino acid tryptophan to enter the brain, enhancing mood.” It is the “precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has been found to be low in many depressed patients.” (page 79).
  6. Consume healthy foods to promote wellness and psychological well-being.  Dr. Amen has found that low levels of the chemicals norepinephrine and dopamine are associated with depression, lethargy and negativity. He suggests selecting “protein snacks such as meat, eggs or cheese and avoiding simple carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, cakes and candy. (page 81). Don’t forget to check in with your general physician or nutrition first, however.

I hope this information has proven helpful for you, your child, and your family and loved ones as you navigate these perilous times. Please take care and God bless.

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Dr. Mead, PhD, MBA, MA http://www.ishareknowledge.com is a consultant specializing in human behavior, school and social psychology. She can be contacted at: tonya at ishareknowledge dot com