Mental health: the silent pandemic in higher education
The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the access to higher education in numerous ways, some of them indirect. Students encounter difficulties such as mental health or precarity issues that result indirectly from the health crisis and the measures taken by governments.
Studies worldwide have shown that the Covid 19 crisis has increased the risks for students’ mental health. Concerns have been raised about the impact of public health measures put in place by governments on students’ well-being. A study conducted in April 2020 by French researchers from the cities of Paris and Lille found high prevalence rates of severe self-reported mental health symptoms: 11% of the almost 70,000 respondents to the survey declared having suicidal thoughts, 24% declared suffering from severe depression and 21% declared struggling with high levels of anxiety. Similarly, according to the Observatoire de la vie étudiante, one third of French students presented signs of psychological distress at the time of the survey. The same type of study has been carried out in the United-States, showing that students experienced largely negative impacts of COVID-19 on psychological health, including lack of motivation, anxiety, stress, and isolation. In extreme cases, these symptoms of psychological distress lead some students to take their own life.
While students are already recognized as a particularly vulnerable population, the Covid-19 pandemic has amplified their distress. Indeed, young people and students are considered as one of the most fragile groups, suffering higher rates of anxiety, depression and eating disorders compared to the general population. With the pandemic, the burden on the mental health of this population has been amplified.
Multiple factors constitute a risk for students’ mental health. Restrictive measures, the closure of universities, online classes, exam conditions, loss of jobs or anxiety concerning the future have all exacerbated students' isolation and in some cases precarity - which are two of the factors which are known to be associated with mental health issues, as Marielle Wathelet, a public health physician at the National Resource and Resilience Center, explained to the blog 'Vivement l'Ecole!’.
As many universities have shifted to online classes, students particularly suffer from social isolation. In an open-letter to the French president Emmanuel Macron, students raised this injustice, noticing that even if companies and schools reopened quickly, universities remained closed since October 2020. Consequently, students are the last ones facing strong lockdown measures. They face their computers all day, roaming in their apartment and alternating between following classes on Zoom, working on their computer, eating and sleeping. Both Quentin and Emeline, post-graduate students experiencing 100% of classes online suffer from isolation:
“It’s difficult concerning isolation and mental health. I see a screen every day, at least 6 hours per day”, said Quentin. Emeline agrees: “I'm going back to see a psychologist. With social isolation, I know I'm mentally fragile. That's why I'm moving into a shared apartment, to see people”.
While some universities have adapted their curriculum, students often struggle with the same workload. However, following online classes raises many difficulties. Students need more time to understand and assimilate the information, which increases the total workload. They lose a lot of energy trying to stay concentrated, and often end up being extremely tired. Quentin explained how the shift to online classes reduced his studying capacities. He has difficulties studying, his work is less qualitative and it takes him twice as long to do an exercise. He said: “we can't take it anymore, we feel like we're always working, we feel like it never stops. The monotony of everyday life weighs on us, even though we wouldn't have realized it under normal circumstances. What is painful is that the teachers expect the same quality and quantity of work.”
Because of social isolation, distress and mental overwork, many students have been unable to follow their classes. French students’ unions have highlighted how online classes increase the risk of school dropout, raising questions in terms of access and retention in higher education.
Even serious and hardworking students such as Emeline now face difficulties to follow their classes: “I've always listened in class, but this time I couldn't. I was falling behind, I stopped following classes. I was doing my dishes while the teacher was talking. I know what price my parents pay, but I just couldn't. It's long, you don't see anyone, you don't have any interaction.”
These barriers to studying will also have consequences on students’ futures. As students are supposed to acquire critical knowledge for the rest of their curriculum, falling behind classes can have a long term impact. Emeline says: “I find it harder and harder to keep up with the classes and I know I'm falling short in subjects that I normally wouldn't have trouble keeping up with. Those of us who were already behind are now not be able to understand anything.”
It has to be noted that all the difficulties students face in terms of social isolation and mental health are exacerbated by economic difficulties. Precarity is an important risk factor for mental health issues, and the Covid-19 outbreak has created financial constraints for many students, mostly due to the loss of student jobs. Students in a precarious situation experience additional stress to meet basic needs and face very difficult studying conditions, their ability to pay their rent, to afford health care, to eat, are being dramatically threatened. Low-income students are often forced to follow their online classes while being locked into their tiny, sometimes 10m2 apartments, increasing their likelihood of suffering from isolation, distress and anxiety.
To conclude, the psychological dimension of the public health crisis is insufficiently taken into account. In some countries like France, it seems easier to be tested for Covid than to have access to a psychologist. As students often cannot afford socio-psychological support, they rarely access the care they need. Moreover, the number of psychologists for students is too low, and students might wait months before having an appointment. According to Matt Crilly of the National Union of Students in Scotland, "Institutions and accommodation providers alike have a duty of care to ensure that their mental health and wellbeing is supported at this time”. There is an urgent need to reinforce prevention and access to mental health care for students, as well as questioning the way universities deliver online teaching.
This article is the fifth of six pieces in a series entitled 'Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education: the Student Perspective', which presents the impact of Covid 19 on higher education. Through the stories of Sasha, Iris, Fiona, Quentin, and others, we invite you to explore the wider pattern of students’ experiences, their difficulties, their distress and their doubts, in addition to the challenges faced by teachers and university staff. The article series is part of a broader project at the Sciences Po Law Clinic investigating inequalities in higher education in France, and is delivered by Elodie Faïd, Fiona Vanston and Inès Girard (pictured below), three Master’s students in Human rights and humanitarian action at Sciences Po Paris working with Right to Education Initiative.
Read the pieces published so far, and find out more about our work on higher education here.
Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education: the Student Perspective
- Article 1: University students in the time of Covid-19: the sacrificed generation?
- Article 2: Covid-19 and technical difficulties: the rise of inequalities in higher education
- Article 3: What happens when the ‘best years of your life’ are actually the hardest? The particular challenges faced by first-year university students during the pandemic
- Article 4: Grounded: the impact of Covid-19 on academic exchanges
- Article 6: "All of my income disappeared overnight": economic precarity for students during the pandemic