‘The internet is definitely not a worthy alternative for a real-life conversation or hug’

Students all over the world are struggling with their mental health due to the corona crisis. According to The Observer, a British newspaper published on Sundays, 75% of US college students reported feeling increased stress and anxiety due to the current pandemic. Opinions and interviews where they cry for help are being published at a fast pace. But why are students not feeling well during the pandemic? Marina Oustoglou, 21 years old and Flemish student music management: The combination of lack of social contact, online classes and being constantly at home are the biggest triggers for my bad mental health.’

Lack of social contact

Corona measures constantly change. In France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany, the measures about especially social contact are strict. Lien Mutsaerts, a Flemish psychologist at Senses Lier, a group practice for physical and mental health, is convinced that these measures influence the development of students. ‘Social contact is important to develop your identity, especially students between 18 and 25 years old will often find a part of their identity in other people. This is barely impossible due to the measures.’

Student Marina confirms this. ‘Lack of social contact is difficult for me. Before the pandemic, I regularly saw my friends and planned social activities. I feel like not being able to do this anymore has a huge impact on my mental health.’

People often say that your time as a student is the best time of your life, mainly because of the people you get to know and the friendships that you gain. This year, there have barely been opportunities to get to know people, and maintaining friendships isn’t easy either. ‘There was a time in summer that I hadn’t had contact with my friends for a month because I felt bad, and remaining these friendships took a lot of my energy at that point’, shares Marina.

Mutsaerts explains: ‘It’s normal that virtual contact can take a lot of your energy. We also have to remember that contact through the internet isn’t a worthy alternative for a real-life conversation or hug. Not being able to have these real-life connections, can lead to loneliness. Loneliness can trigger other physical issues, like depression or fear.’

Is there a change between the first and second lockdown regarding social contact in Belgium? Mutsaerts thinks there is. ‘I notice that the second lockdown is much more individualistic than the first one.’

Less energy for online classes & assignments

In June 2020, EducationData.org, a detailed research platform about the hottest topics & issues in US education, found that 97% of US students switched to online instruction. It is clear that the energy isn’t only low to text your friends, but also to keep following the courses which are largely held online. According to NASFAA (National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators), a nonprofit membership organization that represents nearly 20,000 financial aid professionals, 56% of graduate and professional US students indicated that the lack of motivation for online learning is the biggest obstacle.

Marina mentions that both following online classes and finishing assignments is hard on her. ‘I have less energy to work for school, which is frustrating because I obviously want to finish my assignments on time. I’m just sitting behind my desk every day, and I don’t really gain energy from staring at my screen. The consequence is that I procrastinate a lot more than before.’

Mutsaerts emphasizes the duration of the corona crisis here. ‘It’s normal that students have less energy for school work. In this case, it’s important to look at the bigger picture and take into consideration that this situation is going on since March. The distraction and moments of relaxation have mostly been gone since then. Escaping from the constant pressure of a deadline is more difficult right now than before, there is little to no room to refill the battery.’

Fretting about the future

Vogue already published an article in 2018 called ‘Why millennials are the most anxious generation in history.’ It is not hard to believe that this even increases due to the corona pandemic. Marina mentions that she mainly worries about school and social contact: ‘I’m just lying awake in bed sometimes, wondering whether I will be able to finish my assignments or whether my friends still like me since I don’t see them. I know that these thoughts won’t bring me any solace, but I can’t help it.

Mutsaerts: I’m not surprised that students fret much more now than before. But I also think you should tell yourself that it’s normal to worry, because students simply have more to worry about right now. I notice that students mostly fret about the future, since there is less perspective for them. They also tend to overthink the choice of their study field due to everything being arranged differently. Generally, they fret because they just don’t feel good.’

How do we get through this?

Plenty of articles have been published with tips and tricks to deal with the current situation. ‘The way that students deal with stress and the lack of energy generally, is to bring structure in their day. I also notice that it’s incredibly important to keep talking to friends and family, even though this might take some energy away. In the long term, you’ll feel less isolated when you keep talking to people. Exercising or taking a walk can also be a way to clear your mind’, is Mutsaerts professional advice.

Marina is already an expert in finding out ways to make it more bearable. ‘To make sure that I won’t fully break down, I like to take a moment for myself before or after an online class. Especially now, I feel that it’s important to take care of myself and my mental health.’

‘I find peace in walking my dogs, which marks an important part of my day. I also push myself to call my friends once in a while. Besides, I find it important to keep experimenting with make-up, since that is something I really like to do’, Marina adds.

Text: Jilke Tielemans, photo: © RF._.studio via Pexels