May 18, 2021

How The Pandemic Is Hurting University Students’ Mental Health

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This situation is likely to remain the status quo for some time, especially in the Global South.

FILE PHOTO: The pandemic has driven university students’ stress levels up as they grapple with remote learning. PICTURE: thembi.jpg/Shutterstock/For editorial use only

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Students expressed challenges with time management, distraction and problems associated with family members, writes Samantha Adams, Annie Burger, Anthony J Onwuegbuzie, Bryan Jason Bergsteedt, Emmanuel Ojo, and Talitha Crowley.  

Institutions of higher education worldwide are undergoing unprecedented change because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Universities and colleges have been forced to switch to online teaching and learning. Many were unprepared for this move to what is termed emergency remote teaching and learning.

It is now just more than a year on from many countries’ initial lockdowns. Many universities have adopted some form of hybrid learning approach. They are attempting to combine face-to-face and online instruction into a single, seamless experience. This situation is likely to remain the status quo for some time, especially in the Global South. That is because, although a variety of vaccines are available around the world, distribution and actual vaccination has been slow in poorer countries – and particularly on the African continent.

This has serious implications for higher education. For many students, the university campus isn’t just where they go to learn. It also provides a space for relationships that helps them to form important networks and alliances that evolve and extend beyond their university education.

Seven key themes

For our study, a total of 1,932 university students completed an online questionnaire over a period of six weeks. A mix of undergraduate and postgraduate, and international students also were involved.

The questionnaires yielded demographic data. They also examined students’ perceptions of readiness and motivation for online teaching, learning and assessment; student engagement; and their attitudes towards COVID-19 and its impact on higher education. Open-ended items also were included. These asked the students to reflect on the disruption caused by the pandemic.

Seven themes emerged from the data. These represented challenges that hindered students’ ability successfully to learn online during the COVID-19 era. The themes were:

  • Internet connection
  • Mental health
  • Personal challenges/ability
  • Time management
  • Being easily distracted
  • Family members making studying difficult
  • The interaction between lecturers and students

We found that undergraduate and full-time students were approximately twice and four times, respectively, more likely than were postgraduate and part-time students to indicate problems associated with mental health. Those aged between 18 and 24 were approximately 1.75 times more likely than students older than 24 to present problems associated with mental health.

The findings also reveal a gender dimension to mental health in our study. Specifically, female students were 1.83 times more likely than male students to indicate problems associated with mental health. These problems included stress, anxiety and depression.

Students expressed challenges with time management, distraction and problems associated with family members. These were situated in the notion of self-directed learning and self-management. These notions entail discipline, personal commitment, motivation and so on. Researchers have argued that self-directed learning is important to success. Students struggled with the lack of physical support from their peers and lecturers. They said they were unable to stay motivated and focused by themselves within the remote learning space.

Internet connectivity emerged strongly as a theme. This indicates how great the digital divide is between South Africa’s urban and rural areas. Older students were more likely than were their younger peers to experience connectivity issues. This supports the argument that younger university students are more likely to be digital natives than older students. International students, many of them back at home in other African countries because of the pandemic, struggled the most with connectivity. The university provided data bundles to local students so they could access streamed lectures.

Overall, the results under this theme showed a lack of internet connectivity in rural areas, in general, and particularly in South Africa’s poorest provinces. A large relationship emerged between the poverty ranking of provinces across South Africa and the degree to which students reported experiencing internet connectivity challenges.

Long-term strategy

A country like South Africa cannot afford to ignore the impact of the pandemic on higher education, especially on students’ health and well-being. South Africa’s comparative and competitive edge is locked in the youth, especially university students. They are a critical mass in “building the capability of the state to play a developmental, transformative role” according to the National Development Plan 2030.

South African universities, working with the Department of Higher Education and Training and other national government departments, must create and resource a long-term strategy to support the well-being of university students as they transition through this pandemic. One example is that of the Wellbeing at Oxford programme at Oxford University in England. Online mental health services, as provided in Canadian universities, must become an integral and sustained intervention in South African universities going forward.

This is a joint article by Samantha Adams, Annie Burger, Anthony J Onwuegbuzie, Bryan Jason Bergsteedt, Emmanuel Ojo, and Talitha Crowley.

This article first appeared in the Conversation website.

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