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COVID-19 Mental Health Challenges for College Students

Interview with Yusen Zhai on the pandemic's impact on college students

Yusen Zhai, used with permission
Source: Yusen Zhai, used with permission

College students faced many challenges when COVID-19 forced most schools to shift online. Mental health issues have increased, giving even more reason for research and intervention. As the new Fall semester approaches, it is necessary to foster connectedness and provide social and mental health support to these young people.

Yusen Zhai is a licensed professional counselor and the lead clinic supervisor at the Edwin L. Herr clinic, and he is a doctoral candidate in counselor education and supervision at the Pennsylvania State University. He works with clients from diverse backgrounds, and he supervises doctoral and master’s practicum students and interns. His research focuses on the impact of infectious diseases (e.g., COVID-19) on health and public health outcomes, multicultural and social justice issues, and career development. His recent publications can be found in The Lancet Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, Psychiatry Research, Brain Behavior and Immunity, and Journal of Rehabilitation.

(Mr. Zhai's response is limited to this area of expertise only, and he speaks on behalf of himself only—not as a representative of the program, department, College, or University.)

JA: How did you first get interested in this topic?

YZ: College students are at increased risk of mental health problems during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. They face unique challenges as a result of the abrupt disruption of school. It is disheartening to see college students struggling amid the pandemic, and I am worried about them. Given the growing prevalence of mental health issues among college students before the COVID-19 outbreak, the pandemic has posed an extreme threat to collegiate mental health. Although many institutions of higher education have responded to the intensifying situation in a timely manner, it is still difficult to address the education and mental health needs of all students. Health disparities could also exacerbate collegiate mental health and public health outcomes.

JA: What was the aim of your recent study on this topic?

YZ: The primary purpose was to identify and understand the challenges and concerns confronting college students in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. College students, as emerging adults, are vulnerable to mental health issues in this crisis. Research on college students affected by the pandemic was, however, scarce before COVID-19 gained increased publicity.

JA: What did you discover in your study?

YZ: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a convergence of impacts on college students. Not only does the threat to health lead to poor mental health, but the losses and grief and unprecedented disruptions of students’ lives can also contribute to significant distress. Many institutions of higher education rapidly shifted to online education to limit travel and exposure. In the meantime, students were evacuated from campus. Some students suspended their research projects and internships, shifting their study plans. Some lost their jobs and experienced financial hardship. Consequently, the uncertainty and disruptions of students’ lives led to a spectrum of psychological consequences, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and difficulty sleeping. Students, who experience significant losses and grief, are also at greater risk of prolonged grief disorder.

Additionally, the pandemic, as with many crises, is having a disproportionate impact on marginalized groups (e.g., individuals with low socioeconomic status, sexual and ethnic minorities, international students). Historically, racism and xenophobia emerge whenever infectious disease outbreaks occur. Further, marginalized groups encounter various barriers to mental health services, which continues to widen health disparities. Therefore, solidarity and additional courses of action are urgently needed to support college students in this challenging time.

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?

YZ: Notwithstanding that internet and mobile devices seem ubiquitous in this era, there are barriers to the use of digital technologies to access online education and telehealth. For example, digital inequality impedes the progress of telehealth adoption. The use of telehealth has increased drastically across the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. More challenges may, however, emerge.

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?

YZ: Social support is the lynchpin of promoting not merely mental health but also physical wellness. Although the pandemic has caused a variety of health challenges, we are not alone, and we can show support for each other. During the pandemic, it is of utmost importance to develop and maintain a robust social support network. Given that protective measures (e.g., city lockdown, social distancing) may reduce interpersonal interactions, we can take advantage of available digital technologies to virtually keep in touch with one another. Moreover, it is worthy to note that delaying help-seeking behaviors can exacerbate mental health problems. Hence, help-seeking behaviors are strongly encouraged in order to secure needed support from family, friends, and professionals.

JA: How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic?

YZ: Protective effects of social support in the prevention and mitigation of mental health problems across stressful life events are found in many studies. A collective effort to establish a strong support network is thus urgently needed to address the mental health challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, building awareness of issues around inequality and health disparities can help us better connect with marginalized populations. We can show empathy by understanding others’ experiences from their perspectives and recognizing emotions in them. For mental health professionals, outreach programs can help to improve and extend the reach of mental health services, especially for underserved populations and communities.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

YZ: Since the pandemic generated enormous publicity and concerns, a plethora of researchers in different disciplines have shifted their primary research foci to COVID-19 and public health outcomes. Issues around college student mental health have gained increased attention, and more studies are being carried out to investigate the psychological effects of COVID-19 on college students. I hope to gain a more comprehensive view of the multidimensional impact of the pandemic on college students and the higher education system. For instance, the “ivory tower” is having difficulties functioning during the public health emergency. Some institutions of higher education are struggling to retain students and resume research activities while trying to manage the risk associated with COVID-19, which, in turn, affects their prospective and current students. I am keen on collaborating and learning more about college students’ experiences during the crisis and beyond.


Zhai, Y., & Du, X. (2020). Addressing collegiate mental health amid COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry Research, 113003.

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