When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in November 2019, it threw the world into a flurry. Since the Spanish Flu in the early 1900s, the world has never experienced an outbreak on such a devastating level. Its rapid and virulent spread made this virus a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” (PHEIC) in January 2020. Although preventive public health measures such as stay-at-home, lockdown, quarantine, and social and physical distancing were put in place, they could not fully assuage the rising fear and anxiety in the hearts and minds of people. In fact, it may have added to or amplified mental health issues. Many people have expressed psychological distress and displayed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicide ideation.
The virus shook up our routines; the necessity of staying home forced us to bring our lives online. From remote work and virtual meetings to online learning and virtual hangouts. While the virtual world was instrumental in ensuring that life continues, what does this remote life mean for students? In this article, we explore the impact of Covid-19 on students’ mental health and learn how to support them better in crises.
Developmental Stages of Students
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), approximately 82% of Gen Z adults (ages 18-23) in college face intense stress and uncertainty due to Covid-19 concerning education and schooling. This is a significant life stage for Gen Z adults as they go through a pivotal transition in their lives, coming to terms with adulthood and their future amidst the uncertainty that COVID-19 brings. From Erikson’s psychosocial standpoint, Gen Z adults in college fall within stage 6 (Intimacy vs Isolation), where they naturally seek to form close and meaningful relationships with people around them.
Challenges Faced By Students and Impact on Mental Health
As a result of the public safety measures, learning was shifted online. The shift to remote learning has been one of the main difficulties for students during the pandemic. Many students have found it challenging, whether due to a lack of structure or adapting to a new way of learning. Furthermore, students who face financial constraints or live in less conducive places may face other limitations, which make remote learning all the more challenging. More importantly, the need to stay away from people caused students to feel socially isolated from their peers and professors, leading to loneliness. (Visser & Wyk, 2021)
The mandate to stay home meant students could not participate in their usual social activities. At this life stage where building fulfilling relationships is crucial, the lack of social interactions disallows the natural development of social relationships, thus pushing them towards the “Isolation” end of this psychosocial stage.
Defining Mental Health
Referring to the two-continuum theory of mental health and illness, Visser & Wyk sees it as a continuum where levels of mental health and illness coexist, creating different states of subjective well-being. Emotional well-being reflects the presence or absence of emotional challenges on this continuum that lies between states of flourishing and languishing. (2021)
The authors employed Dr Peggy Swarbrick’s 8- dimensions of wellness framework to identify the components that affect students’ well-being. This framework recognizes eight interdependent dimensions and posits that a balance of these dimensions gives rise to overall well-being. In contrast, an imbalance may lead to negative impacts on well-being. The eight dimensions include: financial, emotional, physical, occupational, social, spiritual, intellectual, and environmental.
Challenges and Impact on Students’ Mental Health
In their study of 5,074 students following the lockdown, Visser & Wyk found that a third of the students had difficulties coping with psychological challenges. Over 20% experienced the lockdown as traumatic, while 45.6% and 35.0% of students reported having subjective symptoms of anxiety and depression, respectively. On the continuum of mental health, students received low scores.
Factors that caused these difficulties included feelings of severe discomfort during the lockdown, trouble adapting to school, and feeling socially isolated. Results showed that female students in their first years of study who lived in informal settlements (lacking space and infrastructure) were more likely to experience emotional difficulties. The authors noted that younger students (particularly first-years) had more emotional difficulties during lockdown than older students. This might be due to a lack of coping mechanisms for dealing with global crises. They also found that poor health and fitness negatively affected students’ mental well-being. There was little fear of infection among the students. With fewer financial responsibilities, they were less concerned with immediate financial issues. However, they worry more about the implications of the pandemic on their future employment. (2021)
In another study on depression in healthcare students, Pretorius noted that the young adult population attending tertiary institutions has already been identified as a concern. Not only do they have higher levels of hopelessness and depression, but they also have higher reported suicide ideation and attempts. Especially during the pandemic, the levels of hopelessness and depression were noticeably greater in healthcare students than those previously reported for young adults worldwide. This mirrors the intense feelings of anxiety and helplessness reported by healthcare workers, higher than other individuals within the same community. (2021)
Protective Factors of Students
In their study, Pretorius identified resilience as a protective trait. In the sample of healthcare students during the pandemic, they found that resilience mediates the association between pessimism and depression to some extent. A person’s resilience level determines the impact of hopelessness on depression, positivity, and somatic problems. As a result, an increase in resilience would directly lead to a decrease in hopelessness and depression. (2021)
While Visser & Wyk found that students’ hopefulness, social connectedness, positive coping mechanisms, and academic and spiritual well-being (in this order) contributed to positive mental health, among all, hopefulness was the most essential and unique predictor of mental health. (2021)
Helping Students Cope
The increasing mental health needs since the onset of COVID-19 point to the need for more proactive ways to “flatten the mental health need curve. From the studies, students at higher risk include students in their first years, students living in informal settings, female students, and healthcare students.
At the university level, psychoeducation programs can be implemented to educate and teach students about mental health, increasing their awareness of the symptoms and dangers of hopelessness and depression. In addition, the programs should include teaching coping strategies and healthy benefits of physical exercise and even conduct online exercise programs. (Pretorius, 2021) (Visser & Wyk, 2021)
Together with the programs, more professional psychological services could be made free and accessible online to students. During times of crisis, online peer counselling and group support can be provided to strengthen the support systems further. (Pretorius, 2021) (Visser & Wyk, 2021)
Academic-wise, additional support for students can come in video tutorials and asynchronous lessons that allow flexibility for faculty and students. Senior students may assume the role of mentor tutors to help the transition to online learning and build academic resilience. Regarding treatments and Interventions, the main focus should be improving resilience since it is one of the strongest protective factors. (Pretorius, 2021)
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students’ mental health. The uncertainty of the environment and safety measures have resulted in higher stress, anxiety, and loneliness for the students. From adapting to remote learning and lacking social interaction to having other struggles, such as financial or space constraints, providing students with the necessary support for their mental well-being is essential. Schools are called on to take a proactive role by educating students about the symptoms and dangers of hopelessness and depression. They can also run psychoeducation programs to teach and practise coping strategies such as mindfulness and promote physical activity. Making professional psychological services free and easily accessible online may make it easier for students to reach out for help.
What else do you think we can do for the students? If you are a student, what do you think can be done for you?
Pretorius, T. (2021). Depression among health care students in the time of COVID-19: the mediating role of resilience in the hopelessness–depression relationship. South African Journal of Psychology, 51(2), 269–278. https://doi.org/10.1177/0081246321994452
Visser, M., & Wyk, E. L. (2021). University students’ mental health and emotional wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown. South African Journal of Psychology, 51(2), 229–243. https://doi.org/10.1177/00812463211012219
COVID-19 Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) Global research and innovation forum. (n.d.). https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/covid-19-public-health-emergency-of-international-concern-(pheic)-global-research-and-innovation-forum
World Health Organization: WHO. (2022, June 16). The impact of COVID-19 on mental health cannot be made light of. https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-mental-health-cannot-be-made-light-of
Stress in AmericaTM 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis. (n.d.). https://www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-october
Iowa Center for School Mental Health. (2022, November 29). Episode #1 – What is Wellness? Identity, Your 8-Dimensions of Wellness, and Creating a System to Support Your Well-Being – Scanlan Center for School Mental Health. Scanlan Center for School Mental Health. https://scsmh.education.uiowa.edu/learning-opportunity/episode-1-what-is-wellness-identity-your-8-dimensions-of-wellness-and-creating-a-system-to-support-your-well-being/
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