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.

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