The Pandemic and the Student Burn-Out

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While the 2020 pandemic was a blow to everyone around the world, it had a particular impact on the student community.

They were all stuck. And being stuck only meant rising fear, insecurity, and a general sense of uncertainty over their well-being. Many students were stuck in countries that weren’t their own, and in unprecedented times like these, all one wanted was to be home. This distance, and unpreparedness to manage the disease not only exacerbated their rising fears around health, finances, and future but also added to the woes of health and security of those at home.

Sameer Tandon, a PhD student in Spain, says  that his anxiety reached an all-time high in March when the pandemic had just begun showing a global trend. Already diagnosed with a borderline obsessive control disorder, Tandon was losing himself as he saw the panic rising, university shutting its campus, and eventually flights getting cancelled. This only meant that he won’t be able to go home in Kolkata in India, and would have to manage his anxiety as panic grew not only in Spain but around the world.

Students, undoubtedly, have  been hit hard by the pandemic. Despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators, the experience of learning was not the same. . Most of them had to forego their traditional learning system, in-person and hands-on learning, the opportunity for peer-driven social and emotional development, and most definitely a cheap and healthy access to meals. This proved to be highly disruptive for students’ mental health on a number of levels, particularly around fear and worries about their health, loss of their inability to connect with peers in person, grief over having lost loved ones, and stress over not having some of their basic needs met. Experts have pointed out in various interviews that students within communities of colour were found to be significantly impacted by the virus because their struggle with discrimination increased and they further felt marginalised. The beginning of the pandemic itself felt nothing less than a full-blown crisis for the kind of impact it had instantly, and the kind one could anticipate in the long term. Mental halth experts have pointed out that they were seeing some of the same psychological impacts on teachers and students as they saw on frontline health care workers.

While the world continued to battle coronavirus, college health professionals were particularly baffled by monitoring a growing crisis among young adults struggling with mental health problems, including suicidal ideation, anxiety and depression related to the pandemic. It was found in several surveys that students suggested their mental well-being being devastated by the pandemic’s social and economic consequences, in addition to the continued uncertainty about their college education and post-college careers. While still emerging from the emergency closures of campuses across the world during the spring semester and the sudden shifts to online instruction, students were then beginning to be worried about the fall semester. Whether campuses that reopened for in-person instruction were a good choice as COVID-19 infections continued to spread? was a typical question that began bothering a lot of them.

What's next?

A mental health study conducted by YourDost, an online mental health platform, on over 8000 individuals found that college students were the most affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown. According to the study, students recorded a six-per-cent increase in the emotions of anger and irritability at the beginning of the restrictions and a 13-per-cent increase in the emotions of loneliness and boredom. As the lockdown progressed, students continued to be the worst-hit emotionally, reporting the highest net deterioration in their emotions, particularly in terms of their anger, anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness, and happiness. The study showed significant deterioration in emotions through several categories.”Students registered 41 per cent increase in emotions of anxiety/fear/worry, 54 per cent increase in anger/irritability/frustration, 27 per cent in hopelessness, sense of sadness was increased by 17 per cent, and 38 per cent increase in the feeling of loneliness/boredom,” it noted. At the beginning of the coronavirus restrictions, the student respondents of the study registered a one per cent increase in their sense of happiness. Later, the feeling of joy crashed by about 15 per cent as the lockdown further progressed.

In the report, it was found that the change in the mental stage of students was impacted by the difficulties they were facing in adjusting to their life at home. It was found that they missed college, their peers and the string of activities that kept happening on campus. Many of them majorly reported difficulty in reconnecting with their parents that led them to feeling severely frustrated and emotionally distant. They also reported a loss of freedom with their parents around. It was further found that emotionally demanding questions like, “what next?”  led to an increase in emotions of anxiety, fear, frustration, irritability. At the same time, these thoughts proved to be consequential in increasing hopelessness, sadness, loneliness, and boredom that particularly came from feeling stuck at home, and the lack of social interactions.

Another report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the pandemic’s effect on mental health identified that a disproportionate number of 18- to 24-year-olds — about one-quarter of those surveyed — had “seriously considered suicide” in the last 30 days. In another study by the Student Experience in the Research University, it was found that students began screening positive for depression and anxiety at higher rates than in previous years. Despite this data, students found that the pandemic made it harder to access mental health care. Another report from, the research and advocacy arm of the youth mental health advocacy and suicide prevention, released on Sept. 10 that 58 per cent of college students surveyed said they were moderately, very or extremely worried about their own mental health. Forty-six per cent said they felt anxious specifically about returning to a physical campus during the fall semester.

Anxiety, stress, uncertainty

Asia Wong, student health services and counselling director at Loyola University New Orleans believes that the new restrictions by colleges on students’ social interactions and shared physical spaces, will definitely impact their ability to freely interact. The constant nagging anxiety about potential exposure to the coronavirus can affect students in unique ways. Many of them may feel isolated or lonely because they can’t have visitors in their residences. Or, relationships between roommates can be complicated by students attending unsafe gatherings and putting one another at risk. In fact, some students might be struggling with the loss of a parent or other relative to COVID-19 and may be away from their support networks.

Braden Renke, a junior at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, is the creator of a mental health advocacy group on campus, The Pizza Project. Renke has an anxiety disorder and believes that the various “unknown” factors about the pandemic have been particularly difficult for her. Factors such as limited access to campus in the spring and social distancing in fact made it harder for her organization to share information about available support services and gather students to discuss mental health over pizza, which was the main objective of the group. She found that the students with whom she had connected were seeing a rise in their mental health disturbances. She particularly found that because of the increase in stress levels, students began to feel extra pressure to perform in unknown circumstances. Many students, especially those at home in unstable environments, were struggling with financial hardships and were particularly impacted by the lack of a normal routine.

Amongst these circumstances, it was expected of college staff members who manage health services to now carefully balance students’ mental health needs with an unprecedented level of monitoring their physical health, through COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and related care. Wong said in an interview that her entire focus since students returned to campus for the start of classes on Aug. 24 has been on students’ physical health. Meanwhile, mental health counselling still relatively remained on the margins. “I used to say that as director of counselling and student health that health takes up 25 per cent of my time and counselling took up about 75 per cent of my time,” Wong said. Now student health takes up about 110 per cent of her time.

Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell University Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery and senior adviser to the Jed Foundation, said the sense of “possibility” that drives young people through their early years is kind of hampered by being physically isolated. JED is a youth mental health advocacy and suicide-prevention organization that leads a campus program that has worked with more than 300 colleges and universities in the United States to improve mental health resources. Whitlock believes that for young adults, there is just so much that’s pulling them into the world is a possibility. “The future is uncertain for all sorts of reasons. They don’t know that things will go back to normal. As someone who’s had a lot of life, I’m not going to be impacted in the way that they will be.”

While on one hand, many mental health reports have signalled troubling trends among college students, other experts believe that the problem may not be as bad it seems. Harry Rockland-Miller, a clinical psychologist who directed the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for more than 20 years, noted that students’ levels of stress are similar to what they were in 2019, despite the pandemic. There were reports that the average levels of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and other forms of stress among students seeking help during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years were “very similar,”.

But Wong said students now seeking help at the counselling centre have not had appointments before, indicating an increase in students that were not previously experiencing mental health problems. Throughout the fall semester, Wong says that the counselling centre is continuing to conduct virtual counselling throughout. In fact, in the two weeks, since classes started, it was observed that nearly 6 per cent of the university’s student body had an appointment with the centre’s staff, which Wong believes is extremely significant. The centre saw an increase in appointments by ten per cent and a five per cent increase in students who had not previously gone to the centre during the spring semester compared to the previous year. In the last couple of months, many campuses have quickly pivoted in the spring to teletherapy and also connected students to a licensed therapist via phone or video conferencing.

The sudden rise in therapy and counselling

Rockland-Miller said the realities of the pandemic have given rise to more teletherapy options at colleges. In the beginning of the pandemic, many colleges did not yet have the technology to be able to seamlessly continue counselling students and had to therefore start from scratch. Now, some are relying entirely on teletherapy if academic instruction is online or in-person counselling is deemed unsafe. The virtual options seemed ideal for the mix of in-person, online and hybrid academic instruction that had to be deployed in the fall semester. Students at a given campus could be living in a residence hall or miles away in their hometown and still get mental health support from the college or be connected to a counsellor or psychiatrist. Miller believes that this definitely requires flexibility by college officials to provide a wide variety of options that cross state lines. “There are so many times when the student is remote and not local,” he said. Earlier, there was some utilization of teletherapy options as part of the spectrum of care, but there’s full-on engagement now, in a way that wasn’t quite anticipated. Many students were getting mental health treatment while in their hometowns have continued that treatment via teletherapy with their care providers back home rather than transitioning to an on-campus provider. This has been helpful for both the student and the university. Students can remain in the care of a trusted therapist, and the university does not have to take on an additional student patient.

Wong said that she is seeing more people who are brand-new to therapy rather than people transitioning to care. While COVID-19 has definitely made it harder for students to access the mental health resources they need, the bright spot is that the pandemic has reduced the stigma of needing and getting mental health support. Whitlock, director of the Cornell research program, said in some ways there is an ease in seeking help because of how much mental health is now talked about and new services are offered. The pandemic seems to have been a reckoning for mental health discussions around the world and especially in the student community. More or less, it seems like an inflexion point. All of a sudden, it seems all right to talk about mental health.

Addressing the burnout

The university guidelines mention that university professors should access online resources, many of which are available for engaging students in distance learning than at the beginning of the pandemic. These guidelines request the professors to apply the same self-care strategies to students as they do their own selves. It is required for them to weave in self-care throughout the day to give themselves and their students a decent time to de-stress. For example, providing short body breaks for students to get up and move around are requested. Universities are also leveraging support networks for nothing is more effective than connecting with trusted colleagues, friends, and family. Not only is social support good for mental health, but research shows that it benefits physical health and can prolong life.

Student coping mechanisms during the Pandemic
  • Connect with Others
    Self-isolation and social-distancing can bring up feelings of boredom, frustration, and loneliness. It can be helpful to maintain a sense of belonging by engaging with others.
  • Set Boundaries with Email and Social Media
    While online communication facilitates being “on” all the time, this is often not helpful. Identify the most important communication channels and manage how frequently you engage with them.
  • Set Boundaries for Media Consumption
    Information is rapidly changing and news outlets provide constant coverage. Consider what level of media consumption is right for you. Aim to be informed and updated rather than overwhelmed.
  • Manage Negative Thoughts and Feelings
    Uncertainty can bring up thoughts and feelings related to change and not knowing. Take time to reflect on your mood and what is coming up for you.
  • Make Plans
    It’s normal to experience concern about contracting the disease during a pandemic. Develop plans that balance out your needs with the needs of others.
  • Connect with resources
    It is pertinent for students to reach out for help and access available resources when stress takes up and makes them feel anxious. Reaching out and connecting can be a great support system for those in need at that particular moment.
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