Researchers: Pandemic Leaving College Students Uncertain Of Future

Oct 26, 2020, 7:17 PM | Updated: 9:14 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – For many students, the pandemic has turned college life upside-down. Researchers at the University of Utah have been studying how it has impacted their mental health. They’ve found it’s affecting them in surprising ways.

Sophomore Eric Whisamore was trying to make the most of his college experience. KSL-TV caught up with him on an eerily quiet week at the University of Utah.

“It’s problem-solving. It’s puzzles,” said Whisamore, who is studying quantitative analytics.

Like most students, he said he feels upended by COVID-19.

“Just this kind of constant feeling of not knowing what’s going to happen,” he said.

Psychology senior Maia Southwick said she worries about future job prospects.

“When I graduate, be like an ‘adult, adult,’ where it’s like, paying for a lot more, and taking care of yourself a lot more, too,” she said.

Utah psychology professor Dr. Monisha Pasupathi, leads a multi-institution collaboration to study mental health in undergraduates.

“(I’ve) just begun to take steps away from home, just begun to move into independent adult living, and then having this virus land,” said Pasupathi.

Her team has been studying freshmen across the country. Their findings matched what she has seen at the U. When the pandemic hit in spring, students had a two- to three-fold increase in mental health concerns.

“Depression, anxiety, hostility, eating concerns, academic anxieties,” Pasupathi said.

Those with poorer mental health also told more detailed stories about their experiences with COVID-19. Academic confidence was negatively impacted, and students engaged in more identity exploration than usual, according to early findings from the study.

An important part of the college experience is developing an identity that guides students into adulthood. The pandemic is making them less certain of their future paths.

“‘What if, what if? What if I can’t do this or what if I can’t do that?’” Pasupathi said.

“What does this mean for internships? What does this mean for job prospects in the future? Is it worth it to take a gap year?” Whisamore asked.

Too much rumination like this can be unhealthy.

Mental health experts said the best thing parents can do is to be helpful and supportive listeners.

“Where you are really helping your kid explore and make meaning out of what’s happening in a way that ultimately is going to help them make sense of it,” Pasupathi said.

Despite the challenges, Southwick is learning endurance.

“We’ve just got to stick with it,” she said.

Whisamore has found joy in deeper friendships.

“It came from living around 48 people, to really living with six people, and that was just in a lot of ways, a better experience,” he said.

“The world is changing, and students are responding appropriately by saying, ‘Wow, what is the future going to be?’” Pasupathi said.

These students said they are doing their best to learn and prepare for their future under trying circumstances.

The university study was scheduled to go through spring 2021.

Researchers have also looked at how students’ stories about COVID-19 change over time, and how that relates to their mental health, identity development and academic outcomes.

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Researchers: Pandemic Leaving College Students Uncertain Of Future