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Online courses linked to increased anxiety and depression, study finds

Fully online college courses have become more of a norm since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the negative effects on student mental health are significant, according to a new report. File photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Fully online college courses have become more of a norm since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the negative effects on student mental health are significant, according to a new report. File photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Nov. 30 (UPI) -- Fully online college courses have become more of a norm since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the negative effects on student mental health are significant, according to a new report.

A pool of 59,250 full-time undergraduate students who were taking fully online classes were found to experience higher levels of psychological distress such as anxiety and depression. Students were part of four-year higher learning programs and were an average of 21 years old.

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The medical journal JAMA Network published the study which looked at the differences in mental health responses based on different delivery methods of college courses including fully online, hybrid and in-person classes. Data came from the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment III.

"The findings of this study suggest that mental health professionals may wish to consider the association of course delivery models with mental health outcomes when working with college students," the report said.

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"Colleges should be aware of the mental health burden associated with attending fully online classes and consider possible in-person components and supports for students."

More than 68% of the students in the study were women, 51% White and 61% taking fully online courses. The association between fully online classes and higher levels of psychological distress remained consistent regardless of the location of the students.

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Psychological distress was measured with the Kessler Screening Scale for Psychological Distress.

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Nearly 10% of students in fully online courses said they do not socialize with friends at all during the week. Online only students had the lowest socialization levels compared to students using other delivery methods.

Online students also experience more distress from academic challenges.

The prevalence of mental health conditions in college students is far greater than before the pandemic. The American Psychological Association reports more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health disorder in the 2020-2021 academic year.

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Depressive symptoms quadrupled in adults age 18 to 39, according to the JAMA report.

"Although online classes may be simpler logistically and may minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission, they also may increase the risk of negative mental health sequelae that should not be ignored," the authors of the report wrote.

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