Methods: Regression analyses compared grade decreases to demographic and mental health variables. Adult undergraduate students in the U.S. were recruited in 2020 and 2021 via social media, instructor announcements, email, or listserv. Two separate cross-sectional surveys were conducted from April - May 2020 (n = 197) and April - May 2021 (n = 142). Participants were asked about demographics, financial concerns, mental health distress using the CCAPS-34, ability to focus, if they had COVID-19 the current semester, if they or any of their family were high-risk for covid-19 complications, their current semester GPA, and what their semester GPA was in February. In 2021, we added questions about social isolation, and loss of closeness with family and friends due to differing safety beliefs surrounding COVID-19.
Results: In spring 2020 and spring 2021, higher depressive symptoms, general anxiety, and academic distress were associated with reported decline in grades. Perceived grade declines were also correlated with higher financial concerns and risk for COVID-19 complications. Students in our 2021 sample felt isolated from others at least half the time during spring 2021, and 58% felt a loss of closeness with friends and family due to differing safety beliefs. Grades decreased during the semester by one letter grade in 2020 and by .64 of a letter grade in 2021. Although there were improvement in academic outcomes, Student mental health was still at concerning levels. In 2020, 11% of our sample had elevated depression, and in 2021 35% had elevated depression. Thirty-nine percent of our sample had elevated anxiety and 47% had academic distress in 2020. This decreased slightly in 2021 but remained highly elevated with 29% showing elevated anxiety and 36% having elevated academic distress.
Conclusion: Students who have higher financial distress and student who are high risk for health complications were more impacted by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. It’s imperative for institutions to provide additional support for students mental health. Mental health outreach, education, and training are necessary for the success of students. Barriers such as wait times, access, stigma, and licensure mobility must be addressed. This research is important for educators, mental health professionals, and policymakers to better understand and address student mental health needs.