The COVID-19 pandemic response took a major and prolonged toll on the mental health of university students, creating psychological distress levels over three times higher than pre-pandemic levels, and worse than healthcare professionals, according to a study.
Students encountered significant challenges because of COVID, explained researchers from the University of Bolton. Often living in small student accommodation rooms, undergraduates were frequently cut off from friends and family, and bereft of physical or emotional support,
Previous research had highlighted how stringent lockdown measures – including closing universities, forcing isolated study, and no in-person lectures or communion with peers – had a particularly striking impact on students, who faced major disruptions to their education and future career prospects. That was compounded by restaurants, bars and clubs being closed for long periods, "stripping away the normal social aspect of university life", highlighted study co-author Dr Chathurika Kannangara, an associate teaching professor at Bolton's Department of Psychology.
Poorer Mental Health and Wellbeing
For the investigation, published in the British Journal of Educational Studies, the researchers tracked the mental health of 554 UK university students over a 12-month period during the pandemic, with data collected online at four time points.
The first analysis looked at the period between 14-16 May 2020, when the UK population was in the seventh week of confinement, and the second between 25 June and 15 July 2020, when lockdown measures were beginning to ease. Further data collection took place between 17 November and 21 December 2020, when tough lockdown restrictions were imposed in the lead up to Christmas, and finally between 14 May and 4 June 2021, when the UK was at step 3 of the roadmap to come out of lockdown restrictions indefinitely.
Analysis of the data suggested that undergraduates at UK universities experienced "prolonged and high" levels of psychological distress and anxiety during the pandemic. The students also reported significantly lower levels of wellbeing, happiness, and life satisfaction, compared with pre-pandemic levels. Periods in which COVID-19 cases were peaking, and during periods of lockdown and intense confinement, were especially associated with poorer mental wellbeing.
"The data suggest that students psychological distress scores – between 13.8 and 15.6 – were slightly worse than scores of a generalised group across the UK, which had been shown in other research to be an average score of 12.59," the authors pointed out.
"University students, along with the rest of the population, experienced fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and health concerns produced by the pandemic," emphasised Professor Jerome Carson, from the university's School of Education and Psychology, and co-author of the paper.
"Perhaps surprisingly," according to the authors, "the new findings also show students' psychological distress scores to be consistently higher, and more severe, [than] levels of psychological distress [experienced by] health care professionals in the UK during the pandemic."
The different phases of the pandemic appeared to have played an influential role in student mental health. During times when pandemic rules and restrictions were relaxed, there was a "slight improvement" in students' mental health and wellbeing, commented the authors. There were also signs that by the end of the study, levels of psychological distress were beginning to reduce, although the reduction was not statistically significant, they noted.
The study also suggested that "flourishing" in UK university students wilted significantly between May 2020 and May 2021. There could be many reasons for this, explained the authors, who pointed out that the "ingredients" that contributed towards flourishing and happiness had been torn away during the pandemic, leading to "heightened loneliness and social isolation", known to be linked to lower levels of flourishing. "Likewise, building and maintaining healthy and effective relationships, a fundamental part of flourishing mental health, was obstructed due to social distancing measures," they stressed.
"There is clear evidence that the mental health needs of university students in the UK have increased since the outbreak of COVID-19," the authors warned. They said that the "lasting and widespread" changes to higher education since the pandemic necessitated more support for students physically, mentally, and academically.
New mental health services accessible via social media platforms or mobile phone applications were recommended, they said, and introducing those could "combat the stigma" associated with seeking professional help, whilst alleviating the strain on "overwhelmed" mental health services.
"More needs to be done to protect university students from mental illness and promote mental well-being during the pandemic and beyond, including a re-think of how policies can support this," they urged.
The research was funded by the University of Bolton.