A Pandemic in itself? The Mental Health Crisis of Covid-19

The Covid-19 crisis, which has rapidly spread across the globe, has now exceeded 50 million confirmed cases in 190 countries and more than 1.2 million deaths. This pandemic has not been selective in who it targets, but rather, has had an unprecedented effect on the lives of almost every single human being.  

As the UK exits its second national lockdown, complaints have repeatedly been raised about the harmful consequences of a singular focus on the virus, with people questioning why the all-important side effects of a lockdown have not received the same attention. Though the protection of the physical health of individuals remains a priority of most governments, there are accompanying side-effects of a lockdown which can also be disastrous and need to be acknowledged. One such side effect is the impact that the pandemic has had on the mental deterioration of young adults. Based on these findings, I will consider some policy and practice recommendations which can help governments, schools and universities to better address the mental challenges facing young people today. 

The mental health and wellbeing impact of lockdowns on young adults  

YoungMinds, a children and young people’s mental health charity, carried out a survey with 2,036 young people and found that 80% of respondents found that the pandemic had affected their mental health and made it worse. The triggers were related to feelings of helplessness, anxiety, reduced motivation levels, a loss of coping mechanisms and loneliness. 

With regard to university students, forced lockdowns and quarantines of a number of halls of residences have led to a high prevalence of mental health issues, according to results of a survey study; published in JAMA Network Open. Students were asked to complete an online questionnaire which included high rates of self-reported suicidal tendencies, extreme distress, anxiety, depression, loneliness and stress. Forced quarantines can disrupt the usual barriers to seeking care and wellbeing services which are often already underfunded and in short supply during a ‘normal’ academic year. In addition, the shift from face-to-face lectures, seminars, societies, freshers fair and career and public events to online platforms have left students feeling disconnected and unable to make friends through the usual route. In a bid to remain ever more connected with others during this unprecedented period, there has been an overwhelming increase in the amount of time young people are spending on screens. However, excessive screen time has in itself shown to be associated with a range of adverse mental health outcomes, including “zoom fatigue”, overthinking and heightened anxiety.   

Lack of Support Schemes and Interventions 

“I just sat in my room all day”. “I’m paying over nine grand a year, I expect to have some sort of support when things go south, but there was just nothing”. A consistent theme which has been echoed by many students is that whilst they knew that university would be a different experience this year, they believed there would be more extensive support schemes in place.  The death of 19 year-old Finn Kitson, a Manchester university student, who died in his halls after experiencing extreme anxiety, has led to widespread calls for universities to increase their support schemes. University can be an overwhelming experience as it is. Students are forced to live in new environments and that novel transition, accompanied by lockdowns and lengthy periods of self-isolation can be a ‘perfect storm’ for mental health deterioration. 

Much empirical research has demonstrated that the mental health service is a chronically underfunded sector. The pandemic has only confirmed this point. Maria (anonymised name), a student from the University of Nottingham reported feeling overwhelming anxiety and asked to speak to a university counsellor but due to high demand, there were none available for two weeks. Nightline, a mental health charity which is run by student volunteers, has found there has been a sharp increase in the number of students making calls to their services as isolation measures create or worsen existing feelings of loneliness and depression. 

As England exits its second national lockdown, it is timely to consider some policy and practice based recommendations that the government, schools and universities can implement to better understand and potentially improve, the mental challenges facing young people and adults. 

Policy and Practice Based Recommendations 

  • A ringfenced Covid-19 support fund administered by governments to schools and universities could enable them to invest in more counsellors and mental wellbeing experts. 
  • Increased funds and attention provided to school and university student support services. For students who want to defer university until 2021 or decide to leave altogether, there could be support sessions by university personal support staff who can advise them on how to navigate this often overwhelming process. 
  • Increased investment into student counselling and wellbeing centres which can provide tailored pastoral support. A fifteen or twenty minute ‘online office hour’ with an academic is not always enough time for students to talk about their concerns in detail.  
  • More 1 to 1 support and in-person counselling events, allowing students to feel that they have something to ‘get up’ for in person, which can also help with having a change of scene. 
  • Increased investment into the provision and running of university mental health helplines which could remotely run on a 24/7 basis. This could also help students who are experiencing loneliness, by giving them a sense of purpose and encouraging them to volunteer.
  • Schools and universities should provide full transparency and certainty to students, about what they can expect with quarantine and isolation measures and the format of exams and assessments. These updates should ideally be provided with as much notice as possible. 

The announcement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that England would enter into a second period of national lockdown was highly disconcerting when considering the accompanying side-effects of mental health which would come with this. Rather than adopting a singular focus on Covid-19, we should also consider pressing side-effects which are looked at secondarily to the virus, if at all. World Mental Health Day on the 10th October highlighted the pressing need to increase funding and investment in a chronically overlooked sector. Schools and universities do have a responsibility towards their students but they cannot effectively fulfil this duty without wider recognition and support.   

Rohini Anand 

Rohini Anand is a MSc student in International Social and Public Policy from the London School of Economics. Her research interests lie in crime and criminal justice policy. 

The featured image (top) is ‘Unexpected meeting’ by Gauthier Delecroix. It is licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Bibliography 

Allen, M, Walter, Eand Swann, C,. “Sedentary behaviour and risk of anxiety: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Journal of Affective Disorders 242 (2019): pp5-13.

Huang, Y., Li, L., Gan, Y., Wang, C., Jiang, H., Cao, S. and Lu, Z., (2020). Sedentary behaviors and risk of depression: a meta-analysis of prospective studies. Translational Psychiatry, 10(1), pp.1-10.

Smith, L, Jacob, L, Trott, M, Yakkundi, A, Butler, L, Barnett, Y, Armstrong, N,  McDermott, D et al. “The association between screen time and mental health during COVID-19: A cross sectional study.” Psychiatry research 292 (2020). 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-54449149- Covid: What is the mental health cost to the young? (Phillipa Roxby, Health reporter). 

https://www.who.int/teams/mental-health-and-substance-use/covid-19- World Health Organisation: Mental health and Covid-19. 

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/impacts-lockdown-mental-health-children-and-young-people- Impacts of lockdown on the mental health of children and young people. 

https://youngminds.org.uk/about-us/reports/coronavirus-impact-on-young-people-with-mental-health-needs/- Coronavirus: Impact on young people with mental health needs. 

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/28/i-was-just-sat-in-my-room-all-day-lonely-students-seek-mental-health-support ‘I just sat in my room all day’: lonely students seek mental health support.

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/22/loneliness-of-uk-isolating-students ‘My mental health had never been worse’: loneliness of the UK’s isolating students.

https://thetab.com/uk/manchester/2020/11/06/inquest-opens-into-death-of-brilliant-uom-fresher-finn-kitson-49578 Inquest opens into death of ‘brilliant’ UoM fresher, Finn Kitson

https://www.who.int/news/item/05-10-2020-covid-19-disrupting-mental-health-services-in-most-countries-who-survey COVID-19 disrupting mental health services in most countries, WHO survey

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