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An Extraordinary Mental Health Burden

by Eddie Rayner

The psychological issues that accompany the Covid-19 pandemic include a heightened prevalence of moderate-to-severe self-reported depression and anxiety symptoms among the general public, reflecting the widespread effects of insecurity and health-related fears.

In the education sector, emergency online learning formats have been created, which seem to have to exacerbated academic stressors for students further. Based on insights from research exploring the impact of educational disruptions on students (Wickens, 2011), it is reasonable to suggest that young people may experience reduced motivation toward studies, increased pressures to learn independently, and abandonment of daily routines. As a result, the Covid-19 pandemic has placed an extraordinary mental health burden on students.

At the time of going to press, just one published study has so far explored the impact of Covid-19 on student education and wellbeing (Cao et al., 2020). In the region of 25% of their sample reported experiencing anxiety symptoms, which were positively correlated with increased concerns about academic delays, economic effects of the pandemic, and impacts on everyday life.

Moreover, among the numerous student surveys carried out across the world, one survey by YoungMinds reported that 83% of students agreed that the pandemic worsened pre-existing mental health conditions, primarily due to school closures, loss of routine, and restricted social connections (YoungMinds, 2020).

Finding New Ways
The question is, when will we return to normal; when will this pressure on young people be alleviated? Rachel Rodgers, an associate professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University, a private research university in Boston, Massachusetts, believes that we’ll probably never go back to the way things were prior to the pandemic. Instead, she said, the current circumstances will oblige us to continue finding new ways to adapt.

“This will most likely be stressful because it’ll be a change,” she explained during a webinar hosted by the Bouvé College of Health Sciences on the impact of Covid-19 on mental health.

“Change is stressful, because there will be unknowns and because there will be fears around the fact that the pandemic will most likely still be with us. But it also means that there is continued opportunity for growth.”

The long-term effects of the pandemic are unknown, but the immediate consequences include stress and fear of contracting the virus. There are also many consequences relating to the measures we are taking to combat the outbreak, including associated social, economic and political effects. These issues often reveal themselves in disrupted eating and sleeping patterns and chronic health problems.

Struggling to Find a Balance
Research has proven that parents who have a youngster with a disability experience much more depression and anxiety than parents with typical children. A lot of parents have struggled to balance the time required to not only entertain their children for an additional eight hours a day but also take on the function of teacher.

People with disabilities, particularly with an autism spectrum disorder, find comfort in routine. But now, as a result of Covid-19, their whole world has been turned upside down. What happens, for instance, when they are frightened and cannot communicate their feelings and emotions? The answer is outward manifestations of behaviour to demonstrate that they are frustrated and scared. This, naturally, only exacerbates the problem.

Dr Dimitriou and Dr Halstead, of UCL Institute of Education, surveyed 583 autistic adults during lockdown. A good number of the responders had pre-existing mental health conditions (85%), but these had become worse during the lockdown.

Also, 23% of autistic people reported that the lockdown had caused new mental health problems. Sleep appears to have become worse for those surveyed too, with 79% reporting sleep disturbances and feeling anxious more than before (44%).

A Generational Opportunity
United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres warned that the world faces a “generational catastrophe” because of school closures amid the Covid-19 pandemic and said that getting students safely back to the classroom must be “a top priority”. This is now happening. And as we move forwards, consultation with parents, carers, teachers and young people is fundamental.

On a positive note, the pandemic is providing a generational opportunity to re-imagine schooling, allowing us to make a quantum leap in delivering quality education. In many ways, the Covid-19 crisis is, to our young people, what World War Two was to their grandparents and great-grandparents. It is a global catastrophe, but we will come out of it stronger and more focused.