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Frequent Social Stress Identifies First-year College Students at Highest Risk of Psychopathology

Key findings

  • This year-long study measured actigraphy-derived sleep and activity, and daily self-reported metrics of affect, academic and social behavior in a group of 49 first-year students at Harvard College
  • Affect and sleep, academic, and social behavior changed substantially from school semesters to school breaks and from weekdays to weekends
  • Not all participants experienced their first year of college in the same way; cluster analysis identified three distinct student profiles with different affective and behavioral features, and varying levels of global psychological distress
  • The researchers concluded that academics are a robust, normative stressor for most students, and a focus on persistent interpersonal stress might be especially helpful to identify those at risk of psychopathology

The various academic, social and personal demands on first-year college students, in addition to poor sleep and low levels of physical activity, can contribute to psychological distress and increased vulnerability to mental illness.

In an intensive longitudinal study of first-year students, frequent stress associated with social relationships (e.g., friends, family, roommates) proved to be a more important risk factor for psychological problems than academic stress. Constanza M. Vidal Bustamante, a PhD candidate at Harvard University, Randy L. Buckner, PhD, director of the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Division at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital and faculty in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and colleagues describe their observations in Scientific Reports.


The researchers followed 49 first-year students at Harvard (25 women) who were enrolled within the first two weeks of their Fall semester. 12% reported a prior diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder, of which 66% were active diagnoses.

The data collected included:

  • Continuous monitoring of activity and sleep by an actigraphy wristband
  • Daily smartphone-based surveys
  • A battery of online questionnaires at the beginning, middle and end of the study, including the Symptom Checklist–90 Revised (SCL-90-R), a 90-item questionnaire that assesses the severity of a broad range of psychological problems and clinical symptoms

The Global Severity Index (GSI), a subscale of the SCL-90-R that reflects the number of symptoms endorsed and intensity of distress, was computed for each participant at each of the three time points.

Temporal Dynamics

As expected, the intensity of demands on students fluctuated over time:

  • In general, sleep increased and activity was lower on weekends and during school breaks
  • Structured academic demands, and releases from them, were associated with large fluctuations in behavior and reported distress
  • Academics were the most common stressor, but that stress was nearly completely attenuated during school breaks, whereas social stress was present throughout the year

Student Clusters

Clustering analysis identified three distinct student profiles:

  • Cluster A reported the lowest scores for negative affect, stress, social stress, academic stress, and time spent on schoolwork, and the highest levels of physical activity
  • Cluster B was much like Cluster A in terms of low general distress but had elevated distress focused on academic demands; these students had the highest cumulative grades
  • Cluster C showed a pervasive pattern of distress: the most negative affect and stress; highest number of daily stressors; a medium to high probability of experiencing academic, social and status stress; lowest sleep quality; lowest energy; highest procrastination; and worst GSI scores

Predicting Clinical Symptoms

While academics were a common stressor for all, the cluster with highest distress stood out by its frequent report of social stress.

Moreover, the frequency of social stress during the semester was a significant predictor of GSI score at the end of the semester (β=9.56; P<0.01), above and beyond baseline symptoms and academic stress. Conversely, academic stress did not predict GSI score (β= −4.24; P=0.29) when controlling for social stress.

Two years later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the first-year cluster with highest distress again stood out by frequent social stress and elevated clinical symptoms.

A focus on persistent interpersonal stress seems especially helpful to identify first-year college students at risk of psychopathology.

Learn more about the Department of Psychiatry

Learn more about Mass General Neuroscience

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