The COVID-19 outbreak has severely impacted students’ mental health. This is the conclusion of a nationwide survey conducted by Lucian Milasan and Ed Griffin – Lecturers in Mental Health at De Montfort University. They explored experiences of psychological distress and its impact on academic performance, along with students’ perception of the support received during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A total of 421 students (78% female, 20% male, 2% non-binary) recruited via Students’ Unions and wellbeing services from various UK universities anonymously responded to this survey. Regardless of gender, ethnicity, and level of study, most of the participants described their psychological health during the COVID-19 restriction period as being poor (37.8%) or very poor (22.1%), with low mood (72.3%) and excessive worry (71.2%) being the main signs of distress. Anxieties around future career (74.6%) and the state of the economy in general (80.1%), own health (44%) and the health of significant others (76.5%), were the most prevalent.
It was suggested by 2 in 3 people (68.6%) that the COVID-19 circumstances significantly contributed to a deterioration of their mental health as a result of social isolation (76.7%), the negative impact of social media (57.5%), financial difficulties (43.7%), and practical challenges such as shopping, cooking, and collecting their medication (36.6%).
Mental health difficulties impacted on the academic performance of two thirds of the subjects (67.3%) during the COVID-19 restriction period. They described their experience as a relentless battle with changes and uncertainty while distancing from their usual coping mechanisms and support systems, lacking motivation and concentration for study, feeling displaced and sometimes frustrated at the virtual learning environments that seem not to fit all.
In terms of support received, most of the students appeared to rely on their friends and peers (72.6%) despite the social distancing measures that severely affected their social networks. Approximately 1 in 2 students (51.3%) benefited from support from their families. However, families were occasionally portrayed as a barrier to their mental health by students expressing feelings of “being stuck” in toxic and abusive environments that added to their distress.
Surprisingly, only a minority of students found GPs (16.2%), specialist mental health services (21.2%), and university wellbeing services (43.7%) supportive in relation to their mental health difficulties, mainly because of limited accessibility. This contrasts with self-help strategies on which 1 in 2 students (51.3%) relied, suggesting a sense of resilience reinforced by their renewed routines in which health behaviours took priority, e.g. drinking less (33.8%), smoking less (10.4%), reducing recreational drugs (9.3%).
Although the responses generally followed a negative note, a significant number of participants (31.1%) have identified a series of benefits – both academic and mental health related – as a result of being in lockdown, such as: stronger connections to their family (but also being away from people in some cases); normalised routines with flexible time for self-care, healthy diet, and exercise; space for reflection and meditation; flexibility of online learning, including more accessible assessments (e.g. coursework in-lieu of exams) which partly reduced their levels of academic stress.
Overall, students seem to perceive their University as a “safety net” expected to restore a sense of community during such disrupted times by incorporating more interactive group teaching and learning activities, but also peer support. Leniency was another major theme related to students expecting to be understood in the new context of the COVID-19 crisis that is, in their opinion, far from “business as usual”. This may explain why 1 in 2 students (48.2%) continue to feel anxious about returning to the university in the new academic year.
Lucian Milasan (Lecturer in Mental Health and Learning Disabilities, De Montfort University, Mary Seacole Research Institute)
Ed Griffin (Senior Lecturer in Mental Health, De Montfort University, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences)
Organisation: De Montfort University
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