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Universities take on the COVID-19 mental health challenge

  • 3 Min Read

Earlier this year, new undergrad students across the nation turned up to their first ever university classes. Within days, they were instructed to go home and learn online to adhere with social distancing requirements. While this was critical to protect community health and safety in response to COVID-19, it left many students deprived of peer-to-peer engagement and collaboration.

As Australian higher education institutions continue to adapt their online delivery models to manage coronavirus-related restrictions, concerns have resurfaced on the mental health and wellbeing of students during long-term social isolation.

Lifeline’s crisis and suicide prevention support service experienced record call volumes in March, with more than 3,000 per day. In April, a 500-call increase on Good Friday saw it become the busiest day ever.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, one in three young Australians reported experiencing problematic levels of loneliness, according to Swinburne University and VicHealth.

Former and current politicians have recognised the issue at hand. Earlier this year, Julia Gillard, Chair of Beyond Blue, urged Australians to prioritise their mental health in the wake of potentially-long-term isolation.

In recent years, the higher education sector has better understood the importance of mental health support. In 2016, representatives from 25 Australian universities met to develop the Australian Health Promoting Universities Network. The initiative aimed to see health and wellbeing improvements for university students and staff nation-wide, particularly on the topic of mental health.

While the aim of university is to obtain a qualification and relevant job-related experience, higher education is equally a platform to meet new, like-minded people and develop meaningful long-term relationships.

In fact, higher education can represent a fresh start for young people. Many students even rely on that opportunity, feeling a sense of loneliness after high school as they move away from the support networks they held throughout their teenage years.

With a demographic already vulnerable to mental health struggles, an added public health emergency presents quite a challenge. With face-to-face engagement at a loss, universities need to tackle the mammoth task in supporting student wellbeing from afar.

However, recognising the impact modern technology can play in alleviating the social barriers the virus has imposed, some universities have already implemented new programs as part of their response initiatives.

Victoria University (VU) is one example of an institute that has proactively invested in the wellbeing of its students through its Student Mental Health Strategy 2018–2020.

Following the coronavirus outbreak, VU’s Sports Department created free team training programs for students at home, hosted over video conferencing technologies. Not only are students getting the benefit of exercise, they are also building a community.

In the United States, the University of Michigan’s Wolverine Support Network provides a peer-led alternative to traditional counselling. The group now runs virtual discussions with members on COVID-19-related anxieties, loneliness and stress, helping those students through these unusual times.

Although online group video conferences fast-track social engagement and offer strategies for managing stress, universities must look more broadly given the scale at which learners have been impacted. After all, students engage with universities and their peers across a variety of touch points, whether it’s a Zoom meeting, an app, or through other methods of communication.

Dr Lexine Stapinski from the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre recommends engaging in active, not avoidant, coping during COVID-19. This means assessing the entire situation we are in and working with it, as uncertain and challenging it may be.

In my experience, technology ought to be used to humanise learning, and ultimately make the digital interactions just as inclusive as physical ones. To achieve this, institutions need to look at the wider student journey to establish programs that leverage technology beyond basic video conferencing.

As a result, they will better substitute the loss of on-campus social networks and provide resources that blend learning, especially once lockdowns ease. This also assists individuals who need to carry out a level of on-site learning or training during the restrictions.

While universities continue to operate under a level of uncertainty, pivoting to a broader view of the learning experience will provide educators with insights to help maintain the wellbeing of their students, particularly newcomers, as they study remotely for extended periods of time, and once lecture theatres begin to reopen.

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