From “anxiety” to “excitement”: mental health of UW students during the spring of 2020

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In early March 2020, the University of Washington became the first four-year U.S. university to move to online-only classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many researchers predicted serious consequences of these physical measures of distancing. To understand how this change affected UW researchers surveyed 147 UW students during the spring 2020 quarter, which began shortly after the university moved to online-only classes. The team compared student responses with a previous survey of 253 students in the spring 2019 quarter.

The researchers did not see many changes in the average levels of depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress or loneliness of students between 2019 and 2020 or between the beginning and end of the spring quarter of 2020. But these average values ​​were masking big differences. in the individuals of the students. pandemic experiences. In general, students who used ways to adapt more focused on problems (creating plans, focusing on positive aspects, etc.) experienced fewer mental health symptoms than those who disassociated or ignored a situation that bothered them. .

The researchers published these findings on June 28 a PLOS ONE.

“During the pandemic, the challenges of online learning were related , and socioeconomic pressures, “said lead author Margaret Morris, an associate professor affiliated with the UW Information School.” There is no easy answer to the question of how students were affected: some experienced intense distress while others were unharmed. “

For the past four years, this team has spent a spring term studying what factors contribute to students ’mental health and overall well-being. Students are invited to continue participating in each study in the spring term, and researchers also recruit new students each time. In a previous paper, researchers found that experiencing discriminatory events altered student behavior, such as the amount of sleep or exercise a student had after the event.

For the 2020 cohort, the team used three different survey methods to monitor student health. First, they sent large surveys at the beginning and end of the spring quarter. Participants then received two shorter surveys each week asking them to reflect on how they felt, in terms of stress, loneliness, depressive symptoms, at that time.

Overall, students who reported more mental health symptoms at the onset of the pandemic continued to experience elevated symptoms during the pandemic.

“Problem-focused coping protected students from the harmful effects of stress (anxiety and depression, for example), although students who used more problem-focused strategies reported more stress,” said co-author Kevin Kuehn , PhD at UW in clinical psychology.

“What these findings suggest is that students who faced actively facing their challenges, rather than avoiding them, still experienced highly stressful events throughout the pandemic. However, they protected themselves from the consequences on mental health, ”Kuehn said. “It’s not always easy or enjoyable to face the challenges of everyday life, especially during a pandemic, but doing so is likely to be very beneficial in terms of reducing anxiety and . “

Finally, in the late spring quarter, the team conducted 90-minute in-depth interviews on Zoom with a subset of participants to gain a deeper insight into their experiences.

Students described a number of challenges that interfered with learning:? Decreased interaction with teachers and peers: Students mentioned that having fewer opportunities to interact with teachers and peers made them feel less engaged. Did some students say they felt like part-time students, even when they had a full course? There are no shared learning environments: did students long to talk about a table in a bedroom or a place in the library where they used to meet with classmates for impromptu study sessions? Family needs: Requests or noise from family members often interrupt studies and even testing. Were family needs, such as care, a particular challenge for the learning of first-generation college students? Interrupted autonomy: Did some students feel “trapped” at home and described difficult “power dynamics” with their parents? Well-being and mental health: Many students described a sleep disorder, decreased motivation, and said they felt depressed or anxious for periods of time. The feeling of disengagement from school students sometimes contributed to depression. Similarly, concern for notes sometimes fell into anxiety and insomnia which in turn made it difficult to concentrate.

Students also developed strategies to combat these challenges, including: Self-learning: Did students use independent online research to find answers to their questions and developed their own experiments to explore what they were learning in class? Structuring routines and environments: Did many students create fixed schedules to study or used physical calendars to mark timelines and assignments? Learning with classmates: Did students set up distance learning groups and hold informal remote work sessions that combined homework with personal conversations, which helped them keep up with homework? Participate more in online spaces: Do many students find it less daunting to ask questions in online classes than in large classrooms, others find it easier to participate in online office hours and meetings with advisors? Using communication platforms for emotional well-being: Some students used telehealth or meditation apps, but almost all used video communication to register with their friends. The students stressed that these connections were critical to their mental health

“On an optimistic note, students are emerging with critical skills to learn and stay connected with peers at a distance,” Morris said. “These active coping skills, which include things like starting virtual work sessions, leveraging online features to participate in class, and consulting friends in an emotionally sensitive way, will have continued value as we pick up hybrid models. and face-to-face education “.

The team plans to follow the students for the four years of their time at UW. The first study cohort graduated this year and the second graduated in the spring of 2022.


Better understand student stress during the pandemic


More information:
Margaret E. Morris et al, College from home during COVID-19: a mixed-method study of heterogeneous experiences, PLOS ONE (2021). DOI: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0251580

Citation: From “anguish” to “unharmed”: mental health of UW students during spring 2020 (2021, July 14) retrieved July 14, 2021 at https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-07 -distress-unscathedmental-health-uw -students.html

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