While much research has addressed mental health concerns related to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, there remains a scarcity of studies specifically exploring the changes in anxiety and depression among university students before and after the implementation of COVID-19 mitigation measures.
In this systematic review and meta-analysis, we searched databases including MEDLINE (Ovid), EMBASE (Ovid), PsycINFO (Ovid), CINAHL (EBSCO), ERIC (EBSCO), the WHO COVID-19 database, Scopus, and Science Citation Index (Web of Science) as of 15 February 2023. We included studies that used a validated tool to measure changes in anxiety or depression at two distinct time points – before (T1) and during (T2); during (T2) and after (T3); or before (T1) and after (T3) COVID-19 mitigation. The quality of studies was assessed using an adapted Joanna Briggs Institute Checklist for longitudinal studies. Utilising random-effects models, we synthesised changes in continuous outcomes as standardised mean difference (SMD) with 95% confidence interval (CI) and binary outcomes as risk difference (RD) with 95% CI.
In total, 15 studies were included in this review, with eight of moderate and seven of high quality. In most of the included studies (n = 13), the majority of participants were women. Eleven studies analysed mental health outcomes between T1 and T2 of COVID-19 mitigations. Continuous symptom changes were a minimal or small improvement for anxiety (SMD = -0.03, 95% CI = -0.24 to 0.19, I2 = 90%); but worsened for depression (SMD = 0.26, 95% CI = -0.01 to 0.62). However, the proportions of students reporting moderate-to-severe symptoms, defined by specific cut-offs, increased during COVID-19 mitigation measures for both anxiety (RD = 0.17, 95% CI = -0.04 to 0.38, I2 = 95%) and depression (RD = 0.12, 95% CI = 0.03 to 0.22, I2 = 72%). Sensitivity analyses, which distinguished between baseline periods based on awareness of COVID-19, demonstrated an exacerbation of both symptoms when comparing the period before the global awareness of the COVID-19 outbreak (before December 2019) with the period during the implementation of mitigation measures.
Mental health outcomes, especially depressive symptoms, were observed to worsen in university students during COVID-19 mitigations. Despite considerable heterogeneity requiring careful interpretation of results, the impact of COVID-19 mitigations on mental health in university students is evident.
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Lee, B., Krishan, P., Goodwin, L., Iduye, D., Farfan de los Godos, E., Fryer, J., Gallagher, K., Hair, K., O'Connell, E., Ogarrio, K., King, T., Sarica, S., Scott, E., Li, X., Song, P., Dozier, M., McSwiggan, E., Stojanovski, K., Theodoratou, E., McQuillan, R. & UNCOVER 2023, 'Impact of COVID-19 mitigations on anxiety and depression amongst university students: A systematic review and meta-analysis', Journal of Global Health. https://doi.org/10.7189/jogh.13.06035