Depression, anxiety and inactive lifestyles are all too common among college students, and a new study finds they may have escalated during the initial outbreak of COVID-19.

Using a mix of smartphone data and online surveys from more than 200 students, researchers at Dartmouth College determined that the coronavirus pandemic had an immediate impact on the mental health of this particular undergraduate group.

The students involved in the study were participating in a research program tracking mental health at the New Hampshire university. They reported spikes in depression and anxiety at the beginning of the pandemic in early March, just as the school pushed students to leave campus and begin remote learning.

While their self-reported anxiety and depression lessened slightly later on in the semester, the study found that their overall anxiety and depression levels remained consistently higher than in previous years.

“We observed a large-scale shift in mental health and behavior compared to the observed baseline established for this group over previous years,” said study author Jeremy Huckins, a lecturer at Dartmouth.

In addition, around spring break period in mid-March, the students reported that their day-to-day lives were dramatically more sedentary than previous terms.

“This was an atypical time for these college students. While spring break is usually a period of decreased stress and increased physical activity, spring break 2020 was stressful and confining for the students participating in this study,” Huckins said in a university news release. “We suspect that this was the case for a large number of college students across the country.”

The researchers calculated sedentary time using a smartphone app developed at Dartmouth. The app collected information such as number of phone unlocks, phone usage duration, and sleep duration from the student volunteers.

The data on depression and anxiety was also collected through the app, using weekly, self-reported questionnaires.

The decrease in activity among these students may have been related to lockdown orders implemented at the time.

“We found that when social distancing was recommended by local governments, students were more sedentary and visited fewer locations on any given day,” Huckins said. “Clearly, the impact of COVID-19 extends beyond the virus and its direct impacts. An unresolved question is if mental health and physical activity will continue to degrade over time, or if we will see a recovery, and how long that recovery will take.”

The study was published recently in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

More information

There’s more about mental health during COVID-19 at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.