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COVID-19 pandemic was especially damaging to the mental health of college students

College students grappled with significant mental health issues during COVID-19. Extremely heightened levels of psychological distress and anxiety were rampant during the course of the pandemic, a fresh study reveals.

The research, conducted between 2020 and 2021, uncovers a worrying trend of prolonged stress among this young demographic. They also experienced significantly reduced levels of wellbeing, happiness, and life satisfaction compared to the pre-pandemic era.

This study, emanating from the University of Bolton and published in the British Journal of Educational Studies, throws light on the severe impact of rigid lockdown measures on students.

College students were forced to adapt in many ways

The abrupt shuttering of universities, forced isolation, and the shift from lively lecture halls to solitary online study, marked a drastic disruption to their educational journey and future career plans.

“Often in small student accommodation rooms, undergraduates were cut off from friends and close family, and unable to rely on their usual routes for seeking physical or emotional support,” says Dr. Chathurika Kannangara, a co-author of the study.

The Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Psychology at Bolton further points out how the closure of restaurants, bars, and clubs erased the conventional social aspects of university life.

How they studied COVID-19 mental health issues

Aiming to grasp the intricacies of the scenario, researchers tracked 554 undergraduates over a span of one year. They recorded students’ mental health and wellbeing at four distinct periods:

May 2020 during the seventh week of lockdown

June-July 2020 when measures were starting to ease

November-December 2020 when stricter lockdowns were reinstated

May 2021 when the world was gradually emerging from restrictions

Results of COVID-19 impact on college students’ mental health

The findings were stark. Students experienced a surge in psychological distress throughout the 12 months of the pandemic. Spikes in Covid-19 cases and the subsequent lockdowns were associated with worsening mental wellbeing.

The study revealed that students’ psychological distress scores, ranging between 13.8 and 15.6, were slightly worse than those of a generalized group, which were observed to be 12.59 on average.

Higher distress levels than healthcare professionals

In a rather startling revelation, the COVID-19 mental health and psychological distress scores of college students consistently exceeded, and were more severe than, those of healthcare professionals during the pandemic.

Rosie Allen, the lead author of the study and a Research Assistant at Bolton, observes, “Even in May 2020, at the first phase of data collection, psychological distress scores were already considerably above pre-pandemic levels.”

However, there were glimpses of resilience. June and July 2020 saw a significant drop in anxiety levels as lockdown measures began to loosen, and social distancing rules started to relax after a prolonged isolation period.

By the end of the study, the researchers also noted a decline in psychological distress, albeit not statistically significant. This could be attributed to universities starting to follow government plans to return to ‘normal’.

Wellbeing and happiness also declined significantly

The study also delved into the college students’ wellbeing and happiness. It found a significant decline in both between May 2020 and May 2021.

According to co-author Professor Jerome Carson, from the School of Education & Psychology at Bolton, there could be several reasons why university students struggled during this period.

“University students, along with the rest of the population, experienced fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and health concerns produced by the pandemic,” he says.

The closure of universities further exacerbated the situation by isolating students and obstructing the building of healthy relationships, thereby hampering mental health.

Researchers call for enhanced mental health support efforts

Given these findings, the authors argue for enhanced efforts to support students physically, mentally, and academically. They affirm that the mental health needs of university students have amplified since the outbreak of Covid-19.

To this end, they propose the creation of new mental health services accessible through social media platforms or mobile phone applications. These modern solutions could help tackle the stigma tied to seeking professional help and could also provide some relief to the already strained mental health services.

“The pandemic, with its myriad challenges, has imposed unparalleled stress on university students, damaging their psychological wellbeing and threatening their academic progression,” the authors write.

Comprehensive new approach towards mental health needed

The study underlines the need for a thorough re-evaluation and a more comprehensive, targeted approach to address the mental health crisis on campuses.

“Understanding the full impact of these unprecedented times on our students’ mental health is a crucial step towards creating more supportive and inclusive university environments in the post-pandemic world,” they conclude.

We live in a world where the future of higher education seems uncertain as the aftermath of the pandemic continues to unravel. This study serves as a stark reminder of the lasting and wide-ranging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student mental health and wellbeing.

It is a clarion call for the academia and policymakers to devise innovative strategies to help students navigate these tumultuous times and foster resilience. The authors of this research hope that their findings will help guide the creation of more effective support systems for students.

After all, mental health does not exist in a vacuum. It is intricately tied to our environment, our relationships, and our experiences.

Therefore, the onus is on us to ensure that every student is equipped with the tools and resources they need to not only survive but also thrive in the post-pandemic academic landscape.

More about the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has left a profound psychological impact on humanity. Besides the enormous physical health toll, the mental health repercussions have been extensive and continue to unfold even as we move towards recovery.

The factors that have contributed to this mental health crisis are multifaceted. They range from illness and loss of loved ones to prolonged isolation, financial stress, and the disruption of daily life.

Fear, anxiety and grief

Firstly, the fear of contracting the virus and the anxiety related to falling ill or dying, or having loved ones fall ill or die, have significantly increased stress levels. Seeing images of overwhelmed healthcare systems and suffering individuals globally has amplified these fears.

For those who have been infected, the fear doesn’t necessarily end with recovery. Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), also known as Long COVID, can contribute to ongoing health anxiety and uncertainty.

Grief and loss have also become all too common, as millions of people worldwide have lost loved ones to the virus. The grieving process has become even more complex given the restrictions on traditional rites and rituals of mourning and closure, such as funerals or gatherings of family and friends.

Isolation, loneliness and uncertainty

Another significant factor is the isolation and loneliness caused by lockdown measures and social distancing. Humans are inherently social creatures, and being cut off from social interaction is challenging. Feelings of loneliness can contribute to a variety of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.

The pandemic has also caused widespread job loss and financial instability, leading to elevated levels of stress and anxiety. Many have experienced housing and food insecurity, which exacerbates these feelings.

Furthermore, the transition to remote work and learning has been challenging for many. Adults working from home have had to juggle professional responsibilities with childcare and household duties.

Lastly, the uncertainty about the future — how long the pandemic would last, when life would return to “normal,” and what that “normal” would look like — has been a constant source of stress.

Disruptions to education and healthcare systems

Meanwhile, students, from elementary school to university, have faced disruptions to their learning and social lives. This shift has not only had implications for mental health but also on physical health, given the increased screen time and sedentary behavior.

Moreover, healthcare workers and other frontline staff have been particularly hard hit. They have faced extreme work pressures, risk of infection, and the emotional toll of caring for severely ill patients. This has led to elevated rates of burnout, anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among this group.

It’s clear that the psychological impact of the pandemic is vast and long-reaching. As such, it’s crucial that mental health support and interventions are made widely available and accessible as part of the global recovery efforts.

The long-term effects of this pandemic on mental health will likely be with us for years to come, and addressing this issue requires commitment from all sectors of society.

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