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Experiences of Pandemic Coping During the Initial Phase of the COVID-19 Outbreak and Among College Students in the United States


Over the past year, the novel coronavirus disease, also called SARS-COV-2 or COVID-19, has plunged the world into a period of upheaval and tragedy. Throughout the uncertainty, psychologists have attempted to stay abreast of the tidal wave of potential psychological impacts of the pandemic. Some scholars contributed predictions of what mental health consequences we might expect based on learnings from past viral outbreaks or on understandings of human sensibilities and behavior. Others studied the psychological outcomes in real time, allowing people to share their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic as it unfolded. This dissertation contributes two texts to our growing base of pandemic knowledge.

Part I includes a longitudinal study with surveys sent on March 18 and April 15 of 2020, two of the very first months of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. During this unique period of time, participants offered insight into their experiences of psychological distress and pandemic coping. Descriptive analyses showed widespread disruption to participants’ lives and high rates of distress. Hierarchical linear regression analyses revealed reported use of Socially Supported Coping strategies was related to less loneliness, while use of Avoidant Coping strategies was associated with more loneliness and greater psychological distress overall. Methodological limitations – including use of a non-representative sample and adapted measures – are considered and implications for pandemic coping and adjustment are discussed. This study is one of relatively few conducted during this unique time period and holds both empirical and historical value as a look at the coping experiences of a subset of Americans during the initial stage of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Part II includes a review of the current literature regarding the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on college students in the United States. Also discussed are empirically based recommendations for coping, including helping students cultivate social support, locate identity affirming spaces, build healthy routines, hold flexible mindsets and engage in positive coping, utilize psychotherapy, and access instrumental support.

Together, these two texts comprise novel research findings, synthesis of scholarship, and clinical recommendations that may be useful to researchers, clinicians, historians, or any human interested in better understanding and navigating the psychological consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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