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Saturday, September 23, 2023

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SDSU researchers are investigating how the virus, social distancing and lockdowns have affected mental health and human behavior. SDSU researchers are investigating how the virus, social distancing and lockdowns have affected mental health and human behavior.

SDSU Faculty Address Mental Health during a Pandemic

The fourth installment of a five-part series highlighting nearly 50 COVID-related projects at SDSU considers efforts to assess and address mental health during the pandemic.
By Kellie Woodhouse

How is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic affecting mental health?

San Diego State University faculty are investigating this question from many angles, providing an important baseline of information as society begins the difficult work of addressing how the virus, social distancing and lockdowns have affected mental health and human behavior. 

This is the fourth in a five-part series highlighting dozens of COVID-related projects taking place at SDSU. The work spans all seven of the SDSU’s academic colleges as well as the university’s Imperial Valley campus. 

For information on all COVID-19 related research, visit

Looking at loneliness

Colter Ray, a professor in the School of Communication, is examining loneliness trends during the COVID-19 pandemic and studying whether certain groups of people are more likely to experience loneliness. Using a series of online questionnaires distributed during the early months of the pandemic, this study inspects how people's experiences of loneliness change during the pandemic. 

Early results show that people are not reporting increases in loneliness over time; however, certain life situations are more likely to be associated with increased feelings of loneliness during the pandemic. For example, those who live alone and are not in a romantic relationship report the highest levels of loneliness. Ray's research has also shown that as people report greater levels of loneliness, the amount of compassion felt towards those affected by COVID-19 decreases.

Measuring distress and anxiety

College of Sciences psychology professor Jean Twenge and Florida State University colleague Thomas Joiner compared levels of mental distress experienced by U.S. adults during the pandemic to pre-pandemic distress levels. Their study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, found that during the pandemic adults were eight times more likely to experience mental distress compared to adults in 2018. Twenge is also working on a study of mental health and time use among adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There has been limited research investigating adolescent mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic or previous pandemics. Nursing professor Young-Shin Lee is studying how adolescents are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on daily life, including anxiety, depression and academic performance. She is surveying middle and high school students in Southern California.

Lianne Urada, a professor in the School of Social Work, and a team of graduate students are conducting a "COVID-19 Mental Health and Wellness Survey" that examines how the pandemic is affecting social workers, students and faculty self-care practices and the ability to teach. The survey will measure self-esteem, social support and psychological well-being.

Addressing behavior

Surabhi Bhutani, a professor in the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, is considering the effect of home confinement during COVID-19 on weight gain. Researchers have found people ate more food and became more sedentary during quarantine. Factors like boredom, cravings and high sleepiness led people to eat unhealthy and be sedentary, while greater self-control, positive mood and low sleepiness led to better health behaviors. 

The research team is collecting a second wave of data from the same people to understand whether body weight and related health behaviors changed during quarantine.

Laura Owen, an adjunct faculty member in the College of Education, is addressing COVID-19 melt. Owen is an expert in summer melt, a term that refers to high school seniors who signaled their intent to enroll in college but do not end up attending. Owen seeks to increase engagement, address barriers on postsecondary pathways and improve student outcomes.

She is addressing the decline in fall 2020 federal student aid applications and renewals and college enrollment rates, which are now being referred to as COVID-melt. The project is funded by a $27,400 grant from the District of Columbia College Access Program (DC-CAP) and will expand the use of a two-way text messaging program designed to communicate with students. 

Owen has also designed a model to address the impact of COVID-19 on current school counselor practice. As part of a $35,000 grant from Michigan College Access Network, Owens is developing a fellow program to help school counselors in Michigan support college and career readiness and postsecondary planning during COVID-19. 

Next in this series: Analyzing COVID-19 Response