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How will online learning impact student mental health?

As every aspect of our social lives changed drastically over the past six months and people were suddenly told to do everything which felt counterintuitive, including staying away from those they love and even strangers on the street – it’s unsurprising that the mental health of everyone has taken somewhat of a dive throughout the pandemic. 

Students across the country headed back to their family homes in March, unsure about when they would again be allowed to go back to university. 

Over the past few weeks, it’s become clearer that the in-person university experience that so many students have held onto throughout lockdown isn’t going to be quite what it was. In March, it was easy to believe that by September, students would be able to flock back to their university towns, move into new houses and carry on with life as normal. Now, all of that seems like a bit of a pipe dream. 

With local lockdowns having affected almost three quarters of the UK population, there being rising daily positive tests and Britain now having entered its second lockdown – it’s clear that university is going to be drastically different this year. 

Generally, Warwick has adopted a policy of blended learning. This essentially means that there will be a mix of in-person small teaching groups like seminars and tutorials, along with labs and other things that simply can’t be done online combined with online lectures and classes. 

This is vastly different to anything experienced by students before, and many, especially those without adequate working conditions, found online learning stressful and difficult when it was implemented in term three of last year. 

61% of participants said that their mental health had deteriorated over the past six months as a result of the pandemic.

In a survey carried out by The Boar Features which gained 67 responses, it was clear that many students had concerns about their mental health if online learning should be implemented and many had found that it had worsened throughout the pandemic. 

61% of participants said that their mental health had deteriorated over the past six months as a result of the pandemic. Only 14% said that it was better. This marks a much wider trend that we are witnessing in society, as many people struggled with their mental health throughout the first lockdown. 

When asked about how these students experienced online learning in the third term of last year where appropriate, only 7% could say that they found it a generally positive experience. 55% said that they found it negative. While some of the reasons behind this are bound to be down to the way that the learning was delivered or whether or not adequate enough academic support was provided, it’s clear that many students found studying from home isolating.

Respondents to the survey were asked whether they felt that online learning would be a challenge to their mental health. Answers varied. One student said: “I can imagine it might make me feel more detached from university which might make me feel down.”

“I would struggle to remain motivated”, suggested another student. 

Lacking a routine which involves regular interaction with other students in academic and social settings takes a toll on mental health, particularly for new students who have not already established relationships with others since starting at Warwick. 

Others commented that online learning gave them little to look forward to and disrupted their schedule, with one response noting that “I think getting out of the house and having a routine and seeing people is crucial for my mental wellbeing.”

Another student said: “I would feel very isolated doing everything from my room” and another suggested that “it would make me feel increasingly disconnected, anxious that the best years of my life are being wasted away on a computer screen.”
Whereas others either said that online learning would not have an impact on their mental health or that it was not a contributing factor at all. 

Loneliness is a huge issue for students at universities around the world. We all know how it feels to be thrown into a completely new environment with strangers and a radically new way of learning. All of this takes a massive toll on our mental health and at times, it can be easy to feel lonely as we spend most of our time in our room. 76% of those who filled out the survey said that they had felt lonely at some point in their time at Warwick. 

As freshers find themselves confined to their halls, without communicating with anyone but the people in their flat if anyone at all, a mental health crisis seems inevitable.

This is an incredibly high amount and a concerning figure when we consider that this doesn’t concern students living through a pandemic. As freshers find themselves confined to their halls, without communicating with anyone but the people in their flat if anyone at all, a mental health crisis seems inevitable. 

While the academic aspect of university is not lost through online learning, what students miss out on the most is the social life they’ve been promised for years. In the survey, participants were asked which of these things were important to them as a student and while 95% of them said academics, 100% said socialising with friends – demonstrating how vital social interaction is for students. Furthermore, 85% of respondents said that having support networks was important for them. 76% believed club nights, pubs and bars were important to them. This is something which will probably be denied to this year’s students for most of the year. 

The UCU (Universities and College Union) announced their campaign for all universities to move their teaching online and Warwick’s Student Union (SU) announced a similar campaign to force all contact hours online. Students were not consulted when these decisions were made.

Measures must be taken to protect students but the mental impact that comes from these measures must also be accounted for.

The devastating impact of the pandemic means that it’s essential for the health of students to be the primary priority for education bodies around the world. Measures must be taken to protect students but the mental impact that comes from these measures must also be accounted for. 

If the university decides to move all learning online, they will need to ensure all students can access any support they may need and that the university’s wellbeing facilities are prepared for the mammoth of a challenge that isolating students from around the world will bring. 

The Boar Features got in touch with Izzy Bourne, the Welfare Officer for the Warwick SU, to find out more on how the Student Union  is doing to help mental wellbeing during this time. “At the SU, we’re working to strengthen the support available to students through our Advice Centre, whilst also ensuring we are offering in-person events and entertainment to allow students to get out of their rooms and socialise. We’re also looking into how we can best support students who are self-isolating, and have put out a survey to better understand the concerns and issues students in self-isolation are facing”. 

She also added that “As Welfare and Campaigns Officer, I am currently revamping the Are You Ok? campaign to function as a much more extensive mental health campaign, with a focus on examining your own mental wellbeing as well as others’. It will focus on tackling loneliness and isolation, and invite students to share their experiences about their mental health and how lockdown may have impacted them. We are also developing training for sports clubs and societies on awareness of the effects of poor mental health and noticing feelings of isolation amongst their peers. I also plan to host a virtual wellbeing ‘fair’ where students can learn about the support that is available and how to get involved in promoting wellbeing at Warwick”.

Most of the students that took part in the survey understood the need to move learning online but were saddened at the thought of what this would mean in regards to student life.

Most of all, however, this survey provides a frightening image about how young people will cope with the lasting impact of the pandemic and how it is affecting education.

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