Penn State funds a five-year study of the health and well-being of its students

several students walking on a sidewalk at Penn State

Credit: Sara Brennen/Penn State

Findings to inform ‘efficient, tailored supports’ for students

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. –  The coronavirus pandemic has negatively affected the mental health of college students nationwide, according to recent studies. To better serve its own students, Penn State recently funded a five-year study to gain further insight into its students’ mental health status and needs.

“We’re partnering with Student Affairs, Student Health Services, the Piazza Center and other stakeholders to understand the mental health of our students over time,” said Stephanie Lanza, professor of biobehavioral health and director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, who is leading the study. “We’ll provide the University with timely information with which to support students with the services they need.”

Beginning this fall, Lanza’s team will send annual surveys to randomly selected first- through fourth-year Penn State students at University Park and several Commonwealth campuses. The students will be surveyed through the year following their graduation.

“Students suffered during the pandemic, and recovery is a gradual process,” Lanza said. “At no point should we forget their mental health and well-being. Attending to their needs is critical.” 

This study is an extension of Lanza’s College Experiences and Relationships (CORE) project, a partnership she established with the University in 2019 to assess students’ well-being, physical health, mental health and substance use behaviors. Findings from the CORE project recently published in PLOS ONE found a significant increase in the percentage of Penn State students reporting elevated levels of depression symptoms – from 44.1% of students surveyed in November 2019 to 61.2% of students surveyed in May 2020.

“This absolutely reflects a nationwide trend. We shouldn’t underestimate the impact that current events are having on the mental health of students,” Lanza said. “College students are a vulnerable population.”

This year’s survey will include questions about health-related behaviors, substance use, food and housing insecurity, discrimination, and feelings of belonging.

Since 2019, Lanza’s team has signed up thousands of Penn State students who have agreed to be contacted about possible participation in future studies. 

“The benefit of being at a research university like Penn State is that researchers can request to contact those students and enroll them in additional studies such as mindfulness interventions or in-depth studies of sleep health or physical activity,” Lanza said. “We’re hoping that this will become a platform for many researchers to build upon.”

This project is funded by Penn State’s Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, the Social Science Research Institute and the Huck Institutes for the Life Sciences.

Projects Mentioned in this Article

Penn State CORE (COllege Relationships and Experiences)

People Mentioned in this Article

Stephanie Lanza Courtney Whetzel