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Researching student mental health during the pandemic: a PhD student tries to remain objective

Maria Thomas4 May 2020

This blog has been guest written by PhD Student Tayla McCloud, UCL Division of Psychiatry.

Woman anxious at desk with laptop

It is difficult to think of anyone who is unaffected in some way by the current coronavirus pandemic and resulting UK lockdown. Whilst practical adjustments and physical health concerns spring to mind, there are myriad mental health implications, too.

Results from two early online surveys conducted by the mental health charity MQ and the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) showed that the main concerns among people with lived experience of a mental illness and others in the general population were the impact of the pandemic on anxiety, isolation, and access to support. These are likely to affect everyone to differing degrees throughout the lockdown.

On April 15th, a team of prominent psychiatric researchers published a piece in Lancet Psychiatry calling for high-quality research monitoring the mental health impact on the general population overall and in specific vulnerable groups. These are defined as including children and young people affected by school closures, older adults who may be isolated, and frontline healthcare workers. This is undoubtedly of utmost importance.

One group also experiencing a lot of disruption, though, is university students. Universities have been forced to close physically, meaning that this year’s exam and graduation season has been upended. Teaching is being conducted remotely and assessments have mostly been moved to different formats online. Like primary and secondary education students, university students will be adjusting to a completely new routine and way of learning.

Unlike primary and secondary students, though, for university students studying ‘at home’ may mean moving back in with parents in a completely different city, town or even country to where they usually study. This is likely to be a considerable upheaval at an already difficult time, with concerns around when it will be safe to return, but students who do not go back to where they lived before university risk being left to live alone without their usual support networks as many others leave.

Most university courses are attempting to continue as close to normal as possible, delivering teaching remotely, which means assessments are still largely going ahead. This means that students are under a lot of pressure to be as productive and focused as usual during what is a very tough time psychologically. Without access to libraries and equipment, they also may not have the resources or study spaces they usually have in which to complete their work. Under-performance, as well as the pandemic itself, could negatively impact their future career.

For these reasons, among others, university students may be at increased risk of experiencing negative mental health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. It is, however, difficult to know this without relevant data.

SENSE Study Logo

This is where my PhD project, the SENSE study, comes in. SENSE is a longitudinal survey of the mental health of UCL students, conducted online beginning in October 2019. The last wave was in February 2020 and the next wave will begin shortly, in May. It covers such areas as students’ demographics, accommodation, financial situation and social lives, and we are adding new questions relating to the pandemic. This means that we will be able to compare UCL students’ mental health before and during the UK coronavirus outbreak. This could help us to understand more about which groups are more vulnerable to the impact of UCL’s closure and the UK lockdown, potentially highlighting areas for intervention. Follow @SENSEstudy on Twitter for updates, or visit our website www.sensestudy.co.uk.

I am also involved in a new study, You-COPE, which aims to measure the mental health of young people aged 16-24 in the UK throughout the lockdown and public health response and in the months afterwards. Follow me on Twitter (@TaylaMcCloud) for updates on this when it launches. This will include university students as well as non-students, and as such will complement the SENSE data findings and allow comparisons between these two groups.

I am attempting to continue this PhD work as usual, whilst conscious that I am a university student living through the coronavirus pandemic researching the mental health of university students during the coronavirus pandemic. It can be difficult to continue work as a “professional” when your work involves focusing on how students are being negatively affected.

Being a student who is researching student mental health is often quite odd like this. I talk about ‘university students’ in the third person, making hypotheses about this abstract group that it is easy to forget I am part of. I often bring my own university experience into the conversation as an example, as do my supervisors, but I am usually referring to a (somewhat) far away undergraduate version of myself and not my present experience. PhD students occupy a confusing space somewhere between staff and student that means we never quite feel like either.

The current coronavirus pandemic, and the resulting UK lockdown and UCL closure, has undoubtedly impacted my PhD work, as well as seemingly every other aspect of my life. I am trying to use this as an advantage; considering how I can use my experience as a UCL student during this time to inform my research, and my interpretation of the findings of this research. I hope that this will add value to the research I am conducting, and that SENSE and You-COPE will be able to shed new light on our understanding of the mental health of university students at a time when they may be particularly vulnerable.