Grief Surges Among College Students During the Pandemic, Study Shows

university student feeling stressed at home

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Key Takeaways

  • New research has found that college students experienced an average of six different losses during the pandemic.
  • Younger students were more likely than those age 24 and up to avoid their grief or feel a lack of control in response to loss.
  • While most students said they felt better after talking about their losses, fewer than a third shared their experiences with a professor or counselor. 

From the closures of campuses to social isolation away from peers, college students have endured major disappointments during the pandemic. And as a result, college students are experiencing a surge in grief, new research shows.

A study recently published by OMEGA - Journal of Death and Dying looked at the losses and reactions that undergraduate and graduate students experienced during the pandemic. It found that students across the country—including those who did not experience the death of a loved one due to COVID-19—are reporting considerable experiences of loss and grief.

Here’s what the research shows about grieving college students during the pandemic.

The Study

For the study, researchers from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Southeastern University surveyed 162 college students on their grief over the course of about two weeks, starting November 30, 2020.

The group included a mix of undergraduate and graduate students from 12 states between 18 and 70 years old. Nearly two-thirds of respondents were between the ages of 18 and 23. The participant group skewed heavily female, and more than 82% of the students identified as White.

The survey included a mix of questions on the types of losses a student may have experienced during the pandemic, such as the death of a loved one due to COVID-19, job loss, financial instability, end of a friendship, and change in mental health. It also assessed students’ grief reactions to these losses, particularly based on whether they attended a secular or religious university.

The results showed that, on average, college students experienced 6.33 losses. More than 90% percent of students reported experiencing a loss of normalcy. Almost 86% said they had a loss or change in the format of their courses. Around six in 10 participants said they missed out on important rituals, like graduations, weddings, and funerals.

“Colleges across the world pivoted to technology and social media as a means of facilitating connection within the collegiate population, which was a massive undertaking in terms of resources, timing, and assimilation," says Teresa Wren Johnston, MA, LPC, assistant vice president of student affairs at Kennesaw State University and executive director of the university’s Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery.

"Yet, the study found that connection was a loss experienced by many, which raises questions about the false sense of connection that students have in an increasingly tech-based collegiate environment,” she added.

Loss of social connections was a common experience, as well, impacting more than 82% of students. Almost half of the students said they lost a friendship or other relationship over the previous year. Furthermore, over 10% of the students said a loved one died of COVID-19 and more than 26% reported the death of someone close to them for reasons other than COVID.

Jeffrey M. Cohen, PsyD

I’ve seen firsthand the toll this pandemic has taken on the mental health of our college students. These college students lost their support networks to a large extent, and many report feeling lonelier.

— Jeffrey M. Cohen, PsyD

“I’ve seen firsthand the toll this pandemic has taken on the mental health of our college students,” says Jeffrey M. Cohen, PsyD, assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and a clinical psychologist who works with college students. “These college students lost their support networks to a large extent, and many report feeling lonelier.”

Reactions to Loss

Overall, 85% of college students said that the pandemic significantly affected their life and academic experience. In response to their losses, students between 18 and 23 years old were more likely than older students to have avoidance reactions, such as trying to forget about their experiences or refusing to believe a loss had happened.

The younger participants were also more likely to report a lack of control, which included items like missing classes or crying due to their losses. These grief responses were more frequent among people who experienced high levels of loss.

“Experiencing a lack of control can be disconcerting for young people and can create a catalyst for significant anxiety,” explains Derek Richards, PhD, research psychologist, psychotherapist, and chief science officer at SilverCloud Health, a digital mental health platform offered by universities and health systems in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

He continues: “Developing avoidance behaviors could potentially lead to isolation and further exacerbate any anxiety and depression one might be experiencing. It’s important to have interventions that are made available early for people who experience significant losses in their lives, including—and importantly—non-death loss.”

Derek Richards, PhD

It’s important to have interventions that are made available early for people who experience significant losses in their lives, including—and importantly—non-death loss.

— Derek Richards, PhD

When analyzing students based on the type of university they attend, those from faith-based schools were less likely to experience a lack of control from their losses, or feel like they needed to avoid them. Spiritual students were also more likely to demonstrate positive resilience in spite of their losses, frequently agreeing to statements like “I started to see some positives in my life after the loss,” or “I changed or grew as a person in a good way.”

With that said, the study did not take into account the experiences of students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That may mean that the findings on faith as a potential bolster for resilience may not hold true among all students, notes Dr. Cohen.

“It is now well documented in numerous studies that spirituality can be a protective factor for the mental health of heterosexual and cisgender individuals, however, spirituality can be a risk factor for the mental health of sexual and gender minority people. Therefore, the positive findings around spirituality in this study may be limited and not applicable to diverse people,” he says.

Helping Students Cope With Grief

While 71% of college students in the study said that talking about their losses helped them feel better, fewer than a third shared their losses with a professor or counselor, indicating a potential opportunity for higher education faculty to get the conversation started and help students heal.

Teresa Wren Johnston, LPC

It’s important that we, as clinicians in the collegiate population, provide education and intervention around grief to help students identify anxiety, depression, and loneliness as side effects of loss, and therefore mitigate the growing mental health concerns on the college campus.

— Teresa Wren Johnston, LPC

“It’s important that we, as clinicians in the collegiate population, provide education and intervention around grief to help students identify anxiety, depression, and loneliness as side effects of loss, and therefore mitigate the growing mental health concerns on the college campus,” says Johnston. 

Dr. Richards urges campus administrators to ramp up resources to support their grieving students on campus.

“Campuses should have counseling centers readily available to provide mental health resources to students in need. In addition to counseling, colleges should consider offering peer-support groups for individuals who are experiencing similar feelings,” he says.

Digital mental health services should also be made more readily available, so students can access support even when they’re not on campus, Drs. Richards and Cohen agree.

“For instance, Woebot is a free smartphone app that offers mental health support and colleges could make students aware of these types of resources,” says Dr. Cohen. “Students tend to be on their phones, so mental health apps can be a great way to reach them.”

Grief can be an overwhelming experience for many people. If you, or someone you know, is having difficulty coping with losses from the pandemic, seek care from a mental health professional. A therapist can provide a safe space to work through grief and help you learn healthy ways to cope.

What This Means For You

College students might be in for a tough semester this fall. Research shows that they’ve experienced significant losses during the pandemic, ranging from deaths of loved ones and broken friendships to canceled graduation ceremonies and other rituals. Many students are experiencing considerable grief as they process these losses.

Even though students may be grieving losses that aren’t specifically related to death, their feelings can still be intense and difficult to cope with. Experts urge universities to increase support services, such as counseling and virtual mental health care, for bereaved students. A therapist can also help college students work through their grief and develop tools to manage those feelings.

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  1. Sirrine EH, Kliner O, Gollery TJ. College student experiences of grief and loss amid the COVID-19 global pandemic. Omega (Westport). Published online June 23, 2021. doi:10.1177/00302228211027461