JMIR Research Protocols
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Background: The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency that poses challenges to the mental health of approximately 1.4 million university students in Canada. Preliminary evidence has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic had a detrimental impact on undergraduate student mental health and well-being; however, existing data are predominantly limited to cross-sectional survey-based studies. Owing to the evolving nature of the pandemic, longer-term prospective surveillance efforts are needed to better anticipate risk and protective factors during a pandemic. Objective: The overarching aim of this study is to use a mobile (primarily smartphone-based) surveillance system to identify risk and protective factors for undergraduate students' mental health. Factors will be identified from weekly self-report data (eg, affect and living accommodation) and device sensor data (eg, physical activity and device usage) to prospectively predict self-reported mental health and service utilization. Methods: Undergraduate students at Western University (London, Ontario, Canada), will be recruited via email to complete an internet-based baseline questionnaire with the option to participate in the study on a weekly basis, using the Student Pandemic Experience (SPE) mobile app for Android/iOS. The app collects sensor samples (eg, GPS coordinates and steps) and self-reported weekly mental health and wellness surveys. Student participants can opt in to link their mobile data with campus-based administrative data capturing health service utilization. Risk and protective factors that predict mental health outcomes are expected to be estimated from (1) cross-sectional associations among students' characteristics (eg, demographics) and key psychosocial factors (eg, affect, stress, and social connection), and behaviors (eg, physical activity and device usage) and (2) longitudinal associations between psychosocial and behavioral factors and campus-based health service utilization. Results: Data collection began November 9, 2020, and will be ongoing through to at least October 31, 2021. Retention from the baseline survey (N=427) to app sign-up was 74% (315/427), with 175-215 (55%-68%) app participants actively responding to weekly surveys. From November 9, 2020, to August 8, 2021, a total of 4851 responses to the app surveys and 25,985 sensor samples (consisting of up to 68 individual data items each; eg, GPS coordinates and steps) were collected from the 315 participants who signed up for the app. Conclusions: The results of this real-world longitudinal cohort study of undergraduate students' mental health based on questionnaires and mobile sensor metrics is expected to show psychosocial and behavioral patterns associated with both positive and negative mental health-related states during pandemic conditions at a relatively large, public, and residential Canadian university campus. The results can be used to support decision-makers and students during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and similar future events. For comparable settings, new interventions (digital or otherwise) might be designed using these findings as an evidence base.