Coronavirus has taken a toll on the mental health of students

Covid-19 has skewed the well-being of some university students who are now dealing with anxiety and depression

A student of Matanzas High School, which was closed due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, waits to begin the graduation ceremony at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S. May 31, 2020. REUTERS/Eve Edelheit

Many aspects of daily life have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, from a nationwide call to stay at home to schools and universities switching to remote learning. While that process has sparked new opportunities to improve the educational landscape, it has also brought newfound challenges to the surface.

The dramatic transition to online learning – and the sometimes unanswered questions related to this process – has increased academic anxiety among several university students I spoke to.

Students already experiencing mental health problems such as academic anxiety or depression are now more vulnerable still. This may be because of physical distancing measures, the disruption of their daily routines, and their new mode of academic instruction.

According to a recently published article by Joyce Lee for The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, the cancellation of extra-curricular activities and loss of part-time employment opportunities are major causes of stress for students during the pandemic.

This is especially true for graduating seniors, who are about to navigate an already competitive job market while coping with online learning in their final year.

Rawya El Lakis, a student of International Studies at the American University of Sharjah, says the switch to online learning has increased her anxiety levels. The issues she faces include limited access to the resources she previously had, such as a more interactive classroom environment, irregular hours and the inability to work amongst her peers.

Rawya has been undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy for depression and anxiety, prior to and during the period of online learning.

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The impact of the crisis has not all been negative. One student told me that this period of remote learning has helped his time-management skills

Another student, who did not wish to be named, says he considers social interactions in the classroom an integral part of his academic performance. He adds that while he previously enjoyed immersing himself in learning in the classroom, he doesn't find that same joy when engaging with the course content online, which he believes is impeding his academic performance.

Like him, Mohamed Sultan, an undergraduate studying finance, found the disruption to his routine due to online learning detrimental to his mental health.

Mohamed notices his motivation to perform has decreased. He does not undergo any form of therapy for mental health challenges, despite being open to the idea. He merely finds the uncertainty of online learning a major source of stress.

Fatima Al Mheiri, who is in the final year of her degree, says she found this semester to be particularly challenging, saying that the combination of remote learning, the overwhelming nature of the pandemic and limited human interaction took a toll on her.

While her university does provide counselling services, she wishes that it had developed a better support system for students. Fatima says she did not feel able to open up to her professors about her emotional well-being and how it has negatively affected her academic performance. She is majoring in International Studies, minoring in psychology, and is part of a mental health advocacy NGO, With Hope. While she has faced mental health issues in the past she says she is currently not facing any.

We have all had to develop coping strategies to navigate the pandemic and this quartet of students are no different: one of them found that meditation and approaching her academic responsibilities in a methodical manner alleviated anxiety.

Another found refuge in regular exercise.

Another reported that establishing a daily routine of virtually reconnecting with friends, working out and sleeping sufficiently had a positive impact on her engagement and performance.

But the impact of the crisis has not all been negative. One student told me that this period of remote learning has helped his time-management skills, giving special mention to the fact that classes are now being recorded.

Crises can also be fresh opportunities to reconsider priorities. In this regard, the continuity of education and the deliverance of course objectives are more pertinent than obsolete requirements such as attendance grades.

Nevertheless, all the students I spoke to agree that these extraordinary circumstances necessitated the quick transition to remote learning. In the words of a few of them, it was the lesser of two evils.

While the process had no blueprint, they are extremely grateful that the continuity of education was considered the priority rather than the academic year just grinding to a halt, as has happened in some other parts of the world.

Covid-19 has left us with an understanding that remote learning is a useful and accessible tool, but that it also places greater burdens upon students. In future, educators must continue to adapt their approach to instruction and, indeed, their relationships with their students.

Omar Al Owais is a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism in the UAE