The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of most, if not all, individuals living in Canada. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the mental health of younger populations (ages 18-25) has been particularly affected.
A notable proportion of younger individuals living in Canada attend some form of post-secondary education, including university, which is considered challenging even in the best of times. Now, with an ongoing pandemic and associated physical distancing measures, many students have been faced with a set of additional challenges that includes campus closures and a quick pivot to remote learning, leading to a sense of uncertainty about their academic futures.
Perhaps most importantly, students are also facing social isolation and a loss of social support because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mandatory physical distancing measures and reductions on social gatherings have left many students feeling disconnected from their home campuses where support and services are typically available.
The cumulative toll of these stressors is likely to have a significant impact on the health and well-being of students. With the winter months looming ahead, and no real end in sight for a return to campus, it’s important to consider how the stressors associated with COVID-19 and social isolation will impact this vulnerable population. What can we predict, and what can we do about it?
Even prior to COVID-19, it was clear that university students were experiencing high rates of stress and mental health issues. For instance, data collected in the spring of 2019 showed that over 50 per cent of students felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, almost 70 per cent felt overwhelming anxiety and about 16 per cent had seriously considered suicide in the preceding 12 months.
Our research group has been studying stress, coping and mental health in students for over a decade. As neuroscientists, we have been particularly interested in how stress might influence a person’s biology, including their stress hormones and immune responses, to predict symptoms of depression and anxiety. We have also been interested in understanding how a person’s genetic background interacts with stressful life experiences to predict vulnerability or resilience to mental health issues.
Among university student populations, we have frequently shown that traumatic events together with genetic make-up predict decision-making, coping abilities, symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide.
We have also highlighted the importance of social relations for well-being, revealing that university students with poorer social ties have higher levels of inflammatory factors known to play a role in depression. Crucially, our data point to just how effective social support is at buffering stress hormones. This is concerning, given the reduced ability to have strong social ties and support networks during the pandemic.
Chronic and unpredictable stress
The COVID-19 pandemic can be thought of as a chronic and unpredictable form of stress that is, in some ways, similar to the types of stressful experiences that we have been studying. We have been tracking how the pandemic is affecting the mental health and well-being of university students, and whether we can identify those who are particularly vulnerable.
Preliminary data from our research suggest that COVID-19 may be affecting students who identify as male and female differently. For example, more female students indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely disruptive to their stress and mental health, and that it has significantly disrupted their academic studies. In addition, a greater proportion of female students compared to males report that social isolation has been difficult or very difficult.
Given the robust relationship between loneliness and depression, we predict that the higher rates of depressive symptoms among female students may be exacerbated in the climate of COVID-19. It is worth noting that others have also suggested that young women are at increased risk of loneliness, depression and anxiety during COVID-19.
We observed that male and female students also cope differently with the pandemic. For example, more female students indicated that they were using social media to cope, and female students scored higher than males on measures of problematic social media use (for example, using social media more often than intended, feeling irritable when not online, using to reduce feelings of anxiety or depression).
By contrast, we are finding that using cannabis to cope with COVID-19 is associated with a greater negative impact on schoolwork and stress levels among male students, but not females.
A long winter and a second wave
With the second wave of COVID-19 officially upon us, fewer opportunities to socialize safely outdoors in winter, and COVID-19 fatigue settling in, we must support both the physical and mental health of our communities.
University students are already reporting that the pandemic is negatively affecting their mental health and disrupting their studies. A subset of students has increased the use of substances such as alcohol and cannabis to cope. The unique challenges male and female students are facing suggest that we may expect to see decreases in academic performance and higher attrition rates — unless appropriate support is provided for these students.
For public health officials and policy-makers, that means using harm reduction approaches to acknowledge and mitigate the risks associated with social contact during the pandemic, particularly among this population. University administrators must ensure there is adequate funding and resources to support student mental health, including addressing problematic substance use. Professors must be willing to acknowledge and address mental health with their student populations.
Now more than ever, we should be paying attention to student mental health.
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