We’re all in the same boat – students’ mental health during COVID-19

When the online semester at the CAU finally started in April, everyone was curious and anxious about how it would turn out. No one knew how much the pandemic would control our lives in the following months and most of the students and teachers actually hoped that everyone could return to university and ‘offline teaching’ as soon as possible. Nevertheless, after it became clear that the online semester was here to stay, one of my fellow students shared how much his life changed during the pandemic and that it was very difficult and stressful for him to continue his studies. The only thing our teacher responded was: “We’re all in the same boat.” Are we really, though?

Naturally, everyone’s life changed due to the outbreak of the corona virus. There is not only an omnipresent threat to our health, but also to our social life, jobs and future. Nobody really knows when the pandemic will end and if it will change our lives fundamentally. According to the World Health Organization the corona virus is “inducing a considerable degree of fear, worry and concern in the population at large […] as new measures and impacts are introduced – especially quarantine and its effects on many people’s usual activities, routines or livelihoods – levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behavior are also expected to rise.” It is needless to say that students are also affected – maybe even more than others.

The Academic Psychiatry, a journal that focuses on psychiatry and behavioral sciences, published an article in 2014 that argues that mental health problems among students are not isolated cases, but actually very common. Students often have to depend on their parents for financial support or have to work full or at least part-time, while also having to deal with academic pressure, individuation from their family and other new and stressful experiences. The numbers speak for themselves: according to a survey in 2015 of the American College Health Association, the main factors that negatively affected students’ individual academic performance included depression (13.8%), anxiety (21.9%) and stress (30%). 

Looking back at this summer semester at the CAU, it is not only very likely that these numbers grew already, but that they will continue to grow in the future. During seminar discussions and conversations with friends I have not met one student who has not suffered due to the corona virus and its resulting online semester. Most of them complained that every teacher used a different approach that they were forced to memorize, while instructions were often unclear, especially in the beginning of the semester. Moreover, a lot of students felt like the workload was much bigger and more demanding than it would have been in a ‘normal’ offline class and like they were being left alone with the subject matter, since it was often difficult to stay in contact with the teacher via email only. Naturally, this increased stress among all students. Furthermore, the students fear how the pandemic will impact their careers in the future. They are not only more likely to graduate later through postponed exams, but will also have to deal with the consequences of the COVID-19 recession in the future. To sum up the situation, students have to deal with uncertainty and anxiety about their health, safety, education, families and future. These issues are even more problematic for students who already suffered from mental illness before the pandemic, especially because according to the American Psychiatry, there has already been an increased demand for counseling and specialized services since 2014 that could not be met back then.

So how could we use this information for the coming winter term? Since we already know that it is going to be mainly designed in a digital form as well and that the end of the pandemic is not within sight yet, it is important for us to keep in mind how differently it is affecting each and every individual. Although university classes are not supposed to replace counseling sessions, it is a place where everyone should feel safe. It is therefore important that teachers and students talk to each other, give each other feedback and figure out together how online classes can work. From my experience, the classes where the teacher openly asked the students about their situation and their workload were actually also the ones the students attended more often and felt more comfortable to engage in lively discussions as well, which is definitely a win-win situation.Furthermore, the CAU created a helpline for those in need for psychological support “in dealing with topics such as fear of illness, rumination and sorrows, the loss of social contacts, the loss of everyday structures or family stress and conflict situations” that is available from Mondays to Fridays between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. It is a step into the right direction. We are all in the same boat, after all.

Quality assurance of e-learning in higher education

Due to the COVID19 crisis universities and schools were confronted with new challenges. Suddenly, it was impossible to have face-to-face classes to educate students and schools were closed for several months. At universities the term was held online completely which was a big challenge for both; teaching staff and students. At the University of Kiel there were many who did not enjoy this new form of studying and teaching and one could say that the quick change may presumably be the reason for the negative mood against e-learning.

E-learning is still considered as something futuristic that may exist but is rather seen as something that is “just out there” with no one believing it to become of any practical use. COVID19 changed the view towards e-learning and might be the beginning of a new era in education. E-learning is nothing new in higher education. In 2009 the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) published a paper that focused on the chances of e-learning and forms that should assure that the learning quality was as high if not even higher than in face-to-face classes. Considering that eleven years ago there already were attempts of integrating online classes into higher education it is odd that most German students and teachers did not have any experience when it comes to e-learning before COVID19. Admittedly, it seems far off to use e-learning when face-to-face teaching is possible. There are still problems when we have to rely on the internet as not everyone has a stable internet connection and we have to consider that not everyone has flexible access to a computer or other digital hardware. It seems like e-learning is a luxurious form of studying that not everyone can enjoy equally, yet. Technologies are changing quickly and thus their accessibility for everyone is difficult to rely on.

However, COVID19 forced higher education to actually use online classes and there are advantages lying in it that prove that e-learning should be integrated more into higher education. At the same time it is important to assure quality standards in higher education. E-learning should not be seen as a simple tool to play with to make education look more modern. Instead it should improve learning results for students. For this reason the ENQA created a paper to present what e-learning can do for higher education and what indicators need to be considered to assure the quality of learning. When used correctly; e-learning can contribute to a higher standard in education. The ENQA is mentioning that through using the internet to lecture students there will be less problems for those who study abroad as they are not restricted to a certain place to attend their classes. At the same time e-learning is creating cheaper education and many students can attend a lecture without bothering about the size of classrooms. Instead of many different classes with different focuses on a topic there could be one big class which would guarantee that every student is on the same page as everyone else. As promising as it may seem to be able to have all students on the same stage of knowledge one has to ask if that would not mean that there would be restricted views on topics which would limit discussions on topics in higher education that are important for new ideas. Higher quality in education does not necessarily mean that every student learns the exact same thing in the same time as others but how can we measure the educational quality of e-learning?

Successful education is linked to many factors. The teacher and the teaching methods used by him or her are as important as the study programs and the equipment of the learning environment. On the students’ side it is important to look at characteristics to interact with them to see if topics were understood. Using e-learning can make the communication between teachers and students difficult as it is harder to sense whether students work well with the presented topics or not. Facial expressions cannot be read by teachers as easily as it would be the case in a classroom which makes it hard for them to create their lessons and lectures. By that the quality of learning can easily be affected. Either the teacher goes on too fast in his lecture or he or she becomes insecure and moves on too slowly which also reduces the outcome of the term’s learning results. Furthermore, teachers are used to certain teaching methods that are not always suitable in online classes. It may be possible to give a presentation online but this does not mean that it is suitable for the topic. E-learning is a challenge for higher education as it forces teachers to rethink their teaching and to evaluate their teaching methods. The evaluation starts with whether the class is suitable to be held online or should rather be given in face-to-face classes. Besides, the technological skills the teaching staff has is rather important for the success of an online class. The last term forced all teachers at universities to handle online classes without considering that the challenges were different for the teaching staff. Those who were insecure in this new way of teaching could not teach the class suitable as they did not know how to use online classes or were unwilling to change their usual teaching methods.

To prevent the explained situation the sometimes poor technological skills of teachers or other factors limiting the quality of online classes university management needs to work closely with the staff and needs to constantly evaluate the situation. COVID19 came out of the blue and there was little time for preparation but to make e-learning a constant part of higher education more investments and communication are necessary. E-learning is not a new thing and this year’s situation would not have to be this stressful for neither the teaching staff nor for the students if universities in Germany had worked more on integrating e-learning into higher education in the last years. The mistakes that were made last term had their reasons but to be able to assure the quality in online classes changes have to be made for the next terms. If the university management does not evaluate the teaching situation and believes that former face-to-face classes can be transformed into online classes without educating teachers and taking possible problems into account there will be bad online teaching which lessens the outcome of classes.

The idea of e-learning is to give further opportunities to higher education. Not every lecture or class can be held online but if possible online classes can help students studying more effectively and can make access to education easier. To reach this goal it is necessary to work on e-learning methods and to work on possible problems. Teaching staff needs to be educated and it cannot be taken for granted that all students have the same access when it comes to the internet. When considering these issues there is a chance that online classes might become a constant part of universities. However, it might happen that online classes will only be used during the recent situation and will be neglected when everything has gone back to normal. If so there will be no progress in e-learning at German universities as only few would take the necessary steps to improve online teaching for using it constantly.

Working remotely and its effects on mental health

Our world turns more and more to technology and as much as it is a good help in many situations of life, it also creates a space for new challenges. Back in school everyone had to read novels from the late 19th and early 20th century. The most popular topics writers back then used in their novels were industrialization and its psychological impact on individuals. I remember reading those stories and I remember my German class teacher going on and on about how industrialization is the death of society while I was sending text messages from my sidekick phone. Back then I thought that all challenges to mankind dealing with technologies were under control and that there were no problems with new technologies. From today’s perspective I would no longer say so. In fact, I would rather say that we are in the middle of a new era that is strongly influenced by the internet. Some may say that society is well aware of the problems the internet confronts people with but in this case I do not want to talk about social media that floods people with unrealistic body type issues or wants us to believe that we are not good enough and thus should buy an overpriced teeth bleaching kit in a connected online shop. No, these well-known problems concerning mental issues caused by the internet will not be the topic of this entry.

This year has been hard on all of us and it seems like this decade wants to show us that we have to change things right from the start. The COVID19 virus shattered our well connected world and by that became a reason for rethinking. Suddenly, no one was supposed to go anywhere and still people had to work and students had to study. It was the perfect time to try what technology enthusiasts must have been dreaming of for years, the home office moved into almost every apartment and it could have been so much fun. Unfortunately, there was little time to plan and coordinate the change to working remotely and so it was a stressful change for most people. Starting off badly is annoying. Due to the special situation the world was in, mood killers like isolation or feeling trapped with others in a small apartment while working had a mental impact on people. After the first shock Germany is trying to go back to normal as far as possible but the model of working remotely will be kept in many offices and students will have to attend their classes online in the coming semester. Apart from the special situation that accompanied the introduction of working from home, the regular concept of working remotely is a danger for the human mental health. There are tips that were given to assure that working from home does not lead straight to depression or anxiety. The question is whether these tips at hand are possible to be used by everyone and how close to reality they really are. Only by learning to deal with this new form of working and studying we are able to integrate working from home as an alternative to offices and classrooms.

When working from home work is intruding private space. Many people find that attractive as they can work anywhere at any time but what comes in handy for some is a challenge for others. Weworkremotely.com (WWR) took a look at mental issues people experience when working remotely. WWR named three main signs of mental problems when working from home. The first issues described were loneliness and isolation. Sitting at home alone with a huge amount of work without being able to take a break and talk to coworkers can be pretty tough. However, it seems like these issues were very COVID19 specific as no one was allowed to have a lot of social contact. The question is if feeling isolated would also occur when there was the possibility to see friends and family after working from home during the day. So isolation can be an issue but it may be a problem that can be easily solved assuming the possibility to be social in other situations is given.

The second mentioned point by WWR is the higher pressure that people who work from home experience. This issue is better relatable to most as having your office in your home is an intrusion that allows working at any time which makes it hard to find boundaries between the two worlds combined in your home. It is difficult to find the time for relaxation when there are mails from work coming in constantly and not everyone is so bold to just turn off the PC when they think they have done enough. Those who struggle with it can easily be trapped in a circle of work that lasts for more than the usual office hours. The risk of burn-out is very high when there seems to be no neutral space that is not connected to work you can go to. The pressure is a problem that will stay if there is no good communication between employer and employees that show up borders that assure that everyone can make a good time management.

Finally, WWR mentions depression caused by working from home. Depression can show in many different ways and it can happen easily. In a situation that locks you in your apartment and keeps you from social interaction it can be tough to stay positive. However, the first two issues (loneliness/isolation & high pressure) in combination may lead to a depression which is why WWR introduced seven steps to prevent negative effects on the human psychology when working remotely.

To prevent that working from home has negative effects on the mental health WWR recommends to do physical workouts, social activities, have a good time management, and to create an organized work space to prevent mental problems. Furthermore, WWR announces that if following these steps, everyone will be capable to work remotely and no one will ever want to work in an office again. This statement implies that working from home is something that should be practiced and concerning the fact that our world becomes more technologized by every year; offices may be redundant in the future. The issues described in the article of WWR show that there are dangers to working from home and the steps they show to prevent these issues may take the edge off for some people but all together it takes more than to have coffee with a friend every once in a while to guarantee the mental wellbeing of people. This entry is neither supposed to criticize the work of WWR nor is its attempt to say that working remotely is ruining our mental health. There are good reasons for working from home and criticizing something because of the fear of change has never brought us anything good. The described steps against depression, anxiety and such can help but only to a certain amount. As long as employers and employees do not communicate and form a set of rules that structure the guidelines for working from home, a ten minute walk will not save anyone from depression. The COVID19 lockdown came out of the blue and therefore problems planning working from home occurred because everything happened so quickly. That does not mean that the organization that was lacking back then cannot be taken now.

In the case that you feel overwhelmed because there are emails popping in at any time of the day and you cannot relax and you feel pressure twenty-four hours a day these issues need to be discussed with a supervisor. There need to be rules and guidelines that give a structure and safety. Those steps had to be done with everything else that was invented. Right now working from home is a gray zone that leads to confusion and fuels stress and anxiety. With rules that both sides have to stick to and the steps mentioned by WWR working remotely can be a safe and efficient way of modern working with many benefits for society. Still the question is whether employers are willing to invest time and money to improve the working situation for their employees or if they see it as a cheap way to get more work done ignoring the effects it has on the mental health of humans. Universities are facing the same problems as it takes a lot of money and organization to create good online education that does not put teachers and students under pressure.