The pandemic has exacerbated the prevalence and severity of depression symptoms in students attending higher-education institutions (HEIs). To investigate how changes in social, financial, political, and scholarly expectations impact students, Sarah Van de Velde and her colleagues studied factors impacting depression symptoms in college students across several countries.
Of course, it was incredibly common for students to deal with depression even before the pandemic came into play. Students attending HEIs are thrust into new social settings and experience different expectations, often with less parental involvement and new living arrangements. But then, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a great deal of change for students—deciding between remote learning, staying alone in a dorm room, saying goodbye to friends, or not being able to return home as they protect loved ones from potential exposure.
“Students’ vulnerability to mental health problems may have additionally increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as students were confronted with governmental lockdown measures, in addition to measures implemented by their HEI,” the authors write. “These measures led to a complete reorganization of higher education, including converting face-to-face lectures to online classes, the partial or total cancellation of internships, laboratory attachments, and fieldwork, and the adaptation of assessment methods to COVID-19 protective measures.”
Van de Velde and a team of researchers built upon previous studies that pointed to the vulnerability of students attending HEIs before and during the pandemic by comparing students’ mental health between countries via the COVID-19 International Student Well-being Study (C19 ISWS). The C19 ISWS was a survey conducted in 2020 that saw 99,689 student respondents from 125 HEIs in 26 different countries.
What sets the latest study apart from past studies is the further breakdown of reasons students may be depressed, getting at the why of their mental health. This included socioeconomic and sociodemographic factors such as age, gender, level of education of their parents, degree of social support, and their “migrant background” (not being an immigrant or being first- or second-generation). In addition, the researchers controlled for whether or not students had COVID-19 previously or at the time of taking the survey to prevent results from being completely skewed simply by whether or not respondents were sick.
COVID-19 related stress was accounted for as well. Students were asked about changes in workload and pedagogy, perceived expectations, concern about their success, and satisfaction with their institutions’ reactions and support. After all, getting sick is/was only a piece of the puzzle for students attending HEIs—students may be thinking about their futures in tandem with the future of the world, especially as COVID-19 wrought nonstop transformation for one and all, not to mention losing loved ones to the disease. That said, the pandemic was not the only force of change during the C19 ISWS. The researchers point out Turkey, the country with the greatest mean level of depressive symptoms, as an example:
“For example, in Turkey, where we find the highest levels of depressive symptoms, students were already confronted with existing political instabilities and declining economic conditions. However, Turkey was also among the countries where the government provided the least amount of financial aid to its citizens during the COVID-19 period, resulting in one of the strongest increases in youth unemployment rates within Europe. Moreover, the Turkish government’s decisions regarding whether to close higher education were unclear and unstable, which may have reinforced feelings of uncertainty among students.”
The countries with the highest mean levels of depressive symptoms were Turkey, South Africa, Spain, the US, and the UK, in that order. On the other hand, students in Nordic countries (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland) and France reported the lowest mean levels of depressive symptoms.
Women, students under the age of 26, students with a migration background, and students with greater financial burdens were more likely to report depressive symptoms. The authors then point out the consistency with which depressive symptoms were found in students before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, both within socioeconomic and sociodemographic groups and across different countries.
“Our study also confirms the relationship between financial stress and depressive symptoms as profusely demonstrated in general and student populations. This demands attention to the repercussions of COVID-19 and the associated policy measures on students’ financial situation in the mid to long term, particularly in countries with a pronounced imbalance between the costs of higher education and the capacity of students to shoulder increasing debt burdens.”
After so much upheaval and transformation, students are still feeling depressive symptoms for the same reasons as they were before the pandemic began. COVID-19 has taken mental health from bad to worse for many students attending HEIs, but it is not solely to blame for their symptoms. It comes down to security—students may be wondering whether or not they’ll be okay, not just in the context of the pandemic, but in the grand scheme of things as their HEIs and even their countries fumble safety responses and efforts to coordinate support for some of their most vulnerable populations. The pandemic’s secondary effects: the isolation, the harsh financial stress, the great unknown of their futures in a world altered by COVID-19 may continue to drive depressive symptoms in the student population.
Van de Velde, S., Buffel, V., Van der Heijde, C., Çoksan, S., Bracke, P., Abel, T., Busse, H., Zeeb, H., Rabiee, F., Stathopoulou, T., Van Hal, G., Ladner, J., Tavolacci, M.-P., Tholen, R., & Wouters, E. (2021). Depressive symptoms in higher education students during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. An examination of the association with various social risk factors across multiple high- and middle-income countries. SSM – Population Health, 16, 100936. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100936 (Link)