Student Mental Health in the time of COVID-19

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2020 began as any other, but soon into the year, the lives of every person worldwide came to a crashing halt, changing life as we all knew it.

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the U.K lockdown on March 23rd, nobody could’ve imagined what life in a bubble would be like. COVID-19 has affected every aspect of our existence, with businesses, homes and places of education scrambling to create solutions whilst everyone adjusted to the ‘new normal’ in the form of lockdown, social distancing and working from home, initially for all but key-workers.  

Whilst solutions were quickly decided on for the future of how businesses would work from home, as well as the halting of further GSCE and A-Level examinations in the U.K, allowing these secondary level education bodies allowing predicted grades to replace exam marks, there has not been a lot of talk for higher education students.

Thousands of students across the U.K have been left in a state of limbo with the government setting few things clear for the certainty of the pandemic not damaging their academic marks. For final year students especially, this has been an incredibly trying time mentally as many juggle the uncertainty and stress of impending dissertation deadlines in addition to the uncertainty and stress of being stationed in their homes for the foreseeable.

The ‘Mental Health Foundation’ stated on their website, “Many of us have worked hard to find ways to live with distress of symptoms in a way that allows us to function at home and at work or study. The pandemic and social isolation may undermine these or make us vulnerable to crisis until we find new ways of coping.”

Abandonment felt by uni student

Talking to a number of students studying in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England, it is glaringly obvious how COVID-19 has negatively affected their mental well-beings, which will presumably also have somewhat a knock on effect in the quality of work produced since lockdown began.

Out of a survey of seven current university students, six stated that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health. Of these, one attributed their dwindling mental health to having to move back into a hostile home environment.

Additionally, a majority of those asked if they felt the pandemic had affected the quality of their work said it had, with the general consensus being that they knew their quality of work was not up to its usual standard but that they had felt pressured by deadlines to submit on time.

Deadline thoughts

Shauna, a final year medicine student, stated “I have been meeting all my deadlines, however, when lockdown was announced for Scotland at end of March I had an essay due for 6th of April (an essay we had no teaching on due to covid-19 closing the university) . I knew myself the work I was doing was not my usual standard as my head was all over the place and I didn’t really understand what I was to do. I got my results back and I failed which I believe is a reflection of how I was feeling at the time.”

Student talks about lacking motivation

For most students, the union strikes in February/March had already affected them and left a large dent in their class learning time, so universities being closed completely really heightened the fear around the lack of teaching and learning in semester two, because of which there have been calls to partially refund tuition fees.

Extra time to get work completed

With no access to libraries and the quiet study spaces universities offer students, a vast majority of students, and lecturers alike, have crumbled under the stress, with a first year student in Leeds commenting, “I have met my deadlines but I am not happy with the quality. It’s hard not having access to university facilities, libraries, software etc. Also had to change the aims of my dissertation as a lot could not be completed at home.” Unable to focus, self-motivate and meet deadlines despite the leniency given to students in the form of submission extensions.

Student outcry on social networking sites including ‘Twitter’ and ‘Tiktok’ has involved a lot of anger unrightfully directed at professors and lecturers, who ultimately are just as in the dark and unknowing of how to navigate these uncertain times as the students. Informed only with basic instructions to relay to their students, lecturers continue to face an influx of frustrated student in their inboxes, when the real focus of frustrations should be directed towards the government.

University library closures affecting study

When asked how COVID-19 has affected their mental wellbeing, one final year student from Ulster University said, “COVID-19 has made the maintenance of my mental wellbeing a difficult task… Having things make sense, really understanding the stage of our lives that we’re at, and COVID-19 has definitely complicated that in every sense of the word. A great portion of the way that I cope and manage my mental wellbeing is through the process of being busy, I’m an extrovert and a relatively restless person, and so my daily life essentially coming to a stop has been a very difficult thing for me to navigate personally.”

Student talking about going from hectic life to empty days

When the world came to its standstill, countless people found their usually busy, full lives turned on their heads, creating a new, horrible facet to the COVID-19 pandemic. For these people, adjusting to a life with no full moments, where each days blends into the next with no excitement, little joy and no physical meetings with those outside their household, was extremely difficult but in a slightly different manner to those with existing mental health issues, including anxiety.

Stay-at-home learning

For those with anxiety, the common feelings of fear and being in a state of panic has become much more heightened. Anxiety is well-known as a breeding ground for irrational thoughts, so those struggling already have been faced with the internal question daily, “Will I and my family make it to the other side of this?”

Existing mental health issues in a pandemic

Further to this, talking to those with differing mental health issues also shed light on the many different struggles each person has faced in the time of a pandemic. When asked if they’d engaged in any self-destructive behaviours since lockdown began, a final year student, diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), responded with, “I have. I’ve been increasingly irritated, claustrophobic and obsessive. Having ASD, not many folk understand the struggles I face. Not being able to see the people I love, nor engage in the activities that give my life meaning have been incredibly distressing.”

For those on the spectrum, having their routine being flipped upside down has been unbearable, with the usual specific routine and order of life being shaken, leaving them feeling more uncomfortable and overwhelmed than most.

Engaging in ‘self-destructive’ behaviours

On the other hand, when not viewing COVID-19 in the generally horrific light everyone sees it in, there are some positives to the current situation for some students. With an extended time of self-reflection, many have learned to appreciate simpler things in life, swapping out nights out, lunch dates and holidays for hobbies and self-care.

Whether it’s painting, baking, playing an instrument of pouring all creativity into making TikTok’s, a vast majority of people have picked up a fun new skill in this dark time, a much more mentally safe way of spending time as opposed to being glued to a phone screen for 12 hours every day.

An undergraduate university student said of this time, “I had a very rough few months of self-destruction and rather than taking lockdown as a negative I’ve tried to turn myself around during this time. I feel more like my old, happier and better self and want to continue this positive mind set well after lockdown is lifted. I learnt its okay to have sad and low days, just do what you need to get through.”

A number of things have become clear to students in this pandemic; 1) Three months can really fly by! 2) The NHS deserve the wholehearted support of everyone and 3) There is much more resilience in students than anyone could have ever predicted. Despite the overwhelming feelings of despair most of students I interviewed felt, it is clear that they are much stronger than they wish to give themselves credit for.

All of the students interviewed here have detailed their struggles, but also their successes in submitting on time despite their struggles. Well done to every single university student who was able to do any coursework in this time; you are truly a credit to yourself.

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