Covid lockdown exacerbates students’ underlying issues

“I am glad I am not a student anymore” is something many young people hear from older generations. The message relates to the tremendously high stress a student experiences today. While an abundance of classes, assignments and reading can be overwhelming, those are not the only things students are dealing with. The pressures together can create the conditions for depression, overstrain and burn-outs.

Fleur started as a fresh journalism student at Windesheim in Zwolle in September 2020, after successfully finishing her practical education and spending a gap year on auditions. “In the beginning, it was a lot of searching for both students and teachers. How to give classes online? How to connect to the students? How to keep the students’ attention? Do you keep your camera on or off? How many breaks do you give? In the beginning, we barely had any breaks, maybe 15 to 20 minutes in a day of 8 hours! It was all very chaotic.”

Fleur continued to explain that at first, there was a balance between three days a week of physical classes, and one day online. But that all switched to fully online education during the second lockdown in December. “That is when I quit. I can’t focus that well behind a laptop, and it was a huge switch to constantly see myself on a screen.”

Not being able to fully participate in classes, limited alternative education methods, and presenting a poster online instead of practical courses. According to an extensive survey conducted by Erasmus University Rotterdam, the pressure on students is increasing, and two out of three students are experiencing stress.

“In the beginning, we barely had any breaks, maybe 15 to 20 minutes on a day of 8 hours! It was all very chaotic.”

But the classes were not the only thing that made studying online much more difficult. As a journalism student you have to find sources, but it has become much more complicated due to the lockdown. Fleur found herself constantly having to find creative ways to get in touch with people — to get rejected once more. “It was all very tiring. Besides this and the online classes, I am sitting in a 15 m2 the entire day, in which my bed takes up the majority of the space. I wake up with the feeling to go to sleep again.”  She lives in a student house that does not have amenities such as a living room or other shared spaces. Moreover, the neighbours have the tendency to start drilling and working on the house at random hours throughout the day, she continued. “It is really not nice! Anyway, everyone has to be able to do their thing, so you try to give everyone a bit of space. But it is complicated.”

Romy van Dijk, a Sociology masters student who participated in the Erasmus University research, explains that people are confronted much more with themselves since they work from home. They also lack the benefits of studying. This has a negative consequence on one’s confidence, which is often linked to increased anxiety and a loss in productivity.

“I wake up with the feeling to go to sleep again. I just get drawn to that bed.”

Louisa is another student who has experienced some significant changes during the pandemic. She is 23 years old and has been studying and living in the Netherlands since 2019. After the summer holidays, Louisa decided not to return to her own place in Arnhem anymore and to move back with her family in Germany. “My study life changed because I didn’t have to go to university anymore. We went from going to school every day to fully online education. So, eventually I went back home.”

Most of Louisa’s friends had left the city, and she realised she had lost contact with quite a lot of friends back home with whom she now can reconnect. Louisa explained she has a little 5 year-old brother. “It is quite a big difference from living on your own to full-on family life.”

While that shift has been quite a challenge, the most challenging part has been another side effect of the lockdown, which is time. It provided the opportunity to do a lot of thinking. “I got to really reflect on a lot of personal stuff. I really had the time, which was good and horrible.”

Both Fleur and Louisa have sought professional help to help cope with personal issues that already existed pre-pandemic. “Initially, I went to solve some issues I had with my family… so then I started talking to a psychologist, and that has helped me tremendously,” Fleur continues. The sessions with a professional have supported her with self-confidence and problems with procrastination. Additionally, they have helped her cope with her emotions. Louisa says she is better able to reflect on situations and feelings, explaining that “talking about these issues neutrally and professionally makes you gain the confidence for next time you aren’t feeling so great.”

“What the lockdown did was I got to really reflect on a lot of personal stuff.”

According to research on The University of Hasselt on Flemish young adults, one in three students has a greater need of psychological help. The same study also recognised an increase in sports among the students. Upon asking the girls how they can recharge themselves, both mentioned physical activities such as long walks and yoga. Simple and covid-proof activities that do not require a gym or fancy materials.

The last piece of advice the students offer is this: ask yourself what you need instead of what you want, and be aware that you have the power to choose. “Don’t focus too much on university,” says Louisa. “It does not matter in the end, and it is not worth sacrificing your self-care over it.” And from Fleur: “You can make new choices every time. So if something happens, you can always choose to go in a different direction.”