UK college students faced long-lasting and severe stress and anxiety during the pandemic, reveals a new study, which tracked their wellbeing from 2020 to 2021. Students reported a significant drop in their happiness, wellbeing, and life satisfaction compared to before the pandemic.
The research, carried out by the University of Bolton and published in the British Journal of Educational Studies, shows how strict lockdown rules – like shutting down universities, promoting isolated study, and banning face-to-face lectures and interactions with classmates – significantly affected students. These measures hugely disrupted their education and potential career paths.
“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,” Dr Chathurika Kannangara, an Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Psychology, at Bolton, explained. “In addition, common entertainment and socialisation facilities such as restaurants, bars and clubs were closed for long periods – completely stripping away the normal social aspect of university life.”
To get a clear picture, researchers followed 554 college students in the UK over one year from May 2020 to May 2021. The students were asked about their mental health and wellbeing at four critical times during the pandemic.
The findings showed a rise in students’ mental distress over the 12 months of the pandemic. Higher stress levels were linked to times when Covid-19 cases were at their highest and during periods of strict lockdown and confinement.
Interestingly, the data revealed that students’ stress scores, ranging from 13.8 to 15.6, were slightly worse than the average scores of a general group across the UK, which was monitored to be 12.59 by Allen and others.
Shockingly, the new data also showed students’ stress levels were consistently higher, and more severe, than those of UK healthcare professionals during the pandemic.
“Even in May 2020, at the first phase of data collection, psychological distress scores were already considerably above pre-pandemic levels,” Rosie Allen, a Research Assistant at Bolton and the lead author, added. “This could be due to the fact that on April 16th 2020, lockdown restrictions were extended for a further three weeks and on the 5th May 2020, the UK had the second highest daily death toll in the world.”
On a positive note, when the pandemic restrictions eased, the students’ mental wellbeing improved slightly. For example, students reported less anxiety in June and July 2020 when the lockdown rules were relaxed and social distancing measures were eased after a long period of strict isolation.
By the end of the study, students’ mental distress levels seemed to be reducing, but the decrease was not statistically significant. This might be because the last survey was filled out when the UK was gradually returning to ‘normal’ following the government’s roadmap.
In addition, the study also found that students’ wellbeing and happiness fell significantly between May 2020 and May 2021.
“University students, along with the rest of the population, experienced fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and health concerns produced by the pandemic,” says Professor Jerome Carson, from the School of Education & Psychology at Bolton. “However, in addition to this, the very ingredients that contribute towards flourishing and happiness were stripped away.”
With the long-term and broad changes to higher education since the Covid-19 pandemic, the authors suggest that more support is needed for students, not just academically, but also physically and mentally.
“There is clear evidence that the mental health needs of university students in the UK have increased since the outbreak of Covid-19,” they conclude. The researchers recommend introducing new mental health services available through social media or mobile apps, which “could combat the stigma associated with seeking professional help, and would
alleviate the strain on overwhelmed mental health services.”