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Psychology Researchers Examine Student Behaviors Prior to and at Outset of COVID-19 Pandemic

Tue, 05/18/2021 - 13:04pm | By: David Tisdale

Dr. Nora CharlesA collaborative research project conducted by a University of Southern Mississippi (USM) psychology professor and her team looked at behaviors of students related to mental health, stress, and substance abuse in 2019 compared to the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

Dr. Nora Charles, assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Sciences’ School of Psychology, said the study compared results of a questionnaire given in both years and revealed that students reported more symptoms related to mood disorders, more stress, and more alcohol use during the pandemic. Results of the study were featured in Psychology Today magazine: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/words-wellness/202103/living-and-learning-in-virtual-world.  

The project began as an interdisciplinary collaboration between Dr. Charles’ clinical psychology lab team of USM graduate students and a colleague at the University of Texas at El Paso, Dr. Katherine Serafine, who directs that school’s behavioral neuroscience lab.   

“We originally aimed to study mood, diet, and substance use in college students, with plans to apply our findings to animal models that could be examined experimentally in Dr. Serafine’s lab,” Dr. Charles said. “Once the pandemic hit, we saw this large, ongoing project as an opportunity to examine how the types of things we were already measuring might be changing in response to the pandemic and associated disruptions in students’ lives.”  

Dr. Charles submitted revisions to the USM IRB (Institutional Review Board) during spring break 2020 and quickly gained approval to add pandemic related items to their data collection. The published paper resulting from the project focuses on the main differences found between students participating during the pandemic and those who participated pre-pandemic, which indicated increases in alcohol consumption, stress, and symptoms of mood disorders (e.g., depression).   
 
“We have continued to collect this information to examine students’ behaviors and well-being during the pandemic in comparison to pre-pandemic participants, as well as how COVID-specific items (e.g., how worried about COVID they were, whether they knew anyone who had contracted COVID) related to these measures of well-being,” she said.   

Dr. Charles said the results are understandable reactions to the pandemic, but also concerning given that issues like stress and alcohol misuse can have significant health impacts.  

The research team is also interested in how these effects may be different for individuals from diverse backgrounds. As an example, the research paper looks at whether Black and white students had different experiences and found that white students reported worse well-being than did Black students. She noted that this may be due to more resilience among Black students, more experience managing stressors in daily life because of racism and discrimination, or different levels of comfort disclosing personal problems between white and Black students.   
   
“We don’t actually know the answer for the differences in responses between Black and white students yet, but we plan to continue studying this,” she continued. “We have expanded our project to look at how students from varying socioeconomic statuses are affected and have also begun human subjects data collection at UTEP, which has a large Hispanic/Latinx population. This will allow us to look at how students at a different university and from a different racial/ethnic background than the majority of the USM sample are doing on these same measures.”  

Although not part of the published paper, the social environment of students participating in the study has been considered for its impact. The research team sees indications that, during the pandemic, they reported fewer positive social interactions, which may also be a cause of negative impacts on well-being.  
   
“Our social relationships bring us joy and are buffers against the stressors in our lives, so in circumstances where students may be physically isolated from peers and/or unable to get the same level of positive effects via interaction through Zoom and similar technology, that may lead to poorer mental health and could also impact their academic performance,” she continued.  

Dr. Charles believes it is important for universities and people who work with college students to understand the impact of the pandemic on students and hopes her team’s study will be an invaluable resource for faculty and staff in higher education.   
   
“Based on the results of this study, we suggest that education about healthy coping skills, normalizing the impact of the pandemic by reassuring students that many people are struggling right now, and ensuring university communities abide by recommended safety practices to reduce the spread of COVID all seem like ways to reduce COVID-related stress and improve well-being,” she said.  
 
Examples of healthy coping skills include talking with friends, exercising, engaging in a hobby, and meditating. “It’s been hard during the pandemic for people to keep up their routines. While it’s still difficult to do some activities we used to do because of safety precautions, I encourage people to try to build time for relaxation and enjoyable activities into their schedule to boost their mood and reduce the negative impact of stress. This is what psychologists call ‘self-care’ and it’s just as important for your overall health and well-being as getting enough sleep or eating a healthy diet.” 
 
“Now that we know how we’ve been affected, promoting how people, particularly college students, can cope in a psychologically healthy way is going to be important for the immediate time being and if we have future experiences like this.” 
 
Learn more about Dr. Charles’ work at USM and the School of Psychology at usm.edu/psychology. For information about the College of Education and Human Sciences, visit usm.edu/education-human-sciences.