Corona pandemic

How are students doing?

Sitting in lectures, eating in the cafeteria with friends, studying in the library, playing university sports and going to parties – all these things are normally part of university studies. But since the beginning of the corona pandemic, normal everyday life at the university has been a distant reality. This has impacted students' mental health.

Studentin mit Maske auf dem Campus Berliner Tor, 2020

It was supposed to be a normal final semester, with a few last courses, the compulsory internship and the Bachelor's thesis. But these days, Sabine Krauß is a long way away from this 'normality'. Instead of sitting in a lecture hall or the library, instead of standing in a lab, the 23-year-old Nutrition and Home Economics student mostly studies in her small Hamburg apartment. She is on her laptop day after day, attending seminars and lectures from her desk. After nine months of studying in corona mode, a certain amount of routine has set in. 'I've set specific times for seminar exercises and put together my own schedule. This semester I also have a number of video lectures where people can actively participate,' she reports.

She's also getting increasingly better at balancing out her studies. In March and April things looked much different: because they were surprised by the lockdown and unprepared for completely digital teaching, many instructors reacted by assigning more work than usual. They were under significant pressure, and they had to find solutions and transfer their teaching completely online. This meant PowerPoint presentations instead of talks in front of the class, take-home essays instead of exams, and lots of homework in the hope of giving students' days more structure. Krauß describes the first lockdown as very stressful and trying. 'We had to adjust to the new study situation, and along with that there was a lot of uncertainty about how and when things would get back to normal.'

The pandemic eats away at the psyche

A lot of students have felt the same way during the corona pandemic. The virus and its impacts are omnipresent in everyday life. The day begins with new, frightening reports about increasing infections and overloaded intensive care units. Social contacts are limited to a minimum, and most only see their fellow students in video chats. Many are worried about relatives and friends who belong to high-risk groups. Added to this is students' uncertainty about their professional future: Can I start a Master's degree in another city? Will I get a spot for my internship? How is starting a career in a crisis supposed to work?

Studies show that anxiety, hopelessness and depression have increased since the pandemic began – including, but not only, among students. According to a survey carried out by ETH Zürich, students who live alone or who have not been able to build up a social network in the new, big city are especially at risk. Women suffer from limited social contacts more than men. There is a simple reason for this: they often have a larger circle of friends and meet up with their friends more often. This means the limitations on social contacts are more stressful for them. This is a big dilemma posed by the pandemic: normally it is precisely these social contacts, time spent with friends, or a hug from a best friend which are good ways to remedy a psychological crisis and lift a person's spirits.

The structure of daily life has fallen away

Since the beginning of March, Alla Bogdanski has been observing how the corona pandemic has gnawed away at our basic pyschological needs. The psychologist and behavioural therapist is a psychological counsellor in the Student Counselling Office at HAW Hamburg. 'The biggest impact for students is the loss of structure and security. This affects new students above all,' she says. Having just left home, they still don't have many social contacts in their new city, and they often have difficulty staying organised. Normally the university gives structure to their days – through lectures, seminars and study groups; through offers such as sports and language-tandem programmes; or through work in student organisations.

 

Without the security and support of a daily routine, it can take quite a bit of effort not to spend the whole day in bed watching Netflix.

Alla Bogdanski, Student Advisor

Especially at the beginning of university studies, socialising takes place mostly on campus. This is where you can make new friends, and where you can always find someone to talk to, have lunch with or study with. This was all wiped away during the first lockdown and summer semester 2020. A lot of online lectures don't take place at set times, and exams have been replaced by take-home essays. 'We are social beings, and without interaction with others, without the security and support of a daily routine, it can take quite a bit of effort not to spend the whole day in bed watching Netflix,' says Bogdanski. On top of this is the limited living space in an expensive city like Hamburg. For lots of students, a large part of the day takes place within 15 to 20 square metres. Sabine Krauß has also experienced this. 'Especially in April I was alone a lot. That was really hard on my psyche,' the 23-year-old says. Sport, usually an important stabiliser, wasn't possible, and she only talked to her friends by phone. Then there was the heavy workload.

Supporting students with ideas and offers to talk

At HAW Hamburg, the counselling staff tried to react quickly to the mental stress that students were experiencing. Since mid-March, Bogdanski and her colleagues have been providing all of the advising and counselling services online as well. In the open telephone office hours and the counselling sessions, students can talk openly about their worries and fears. The demand for this service has been greater than usual since the spring. To meet this demand not just digitally but also in person, counselling sessions are now also taking place at the university again – with distance and masks, and with the rooms aired out between appointments. Another element of the preventative work is CamPuls. This project, which promotes student health, was started before corona and now provides information on nutrition, exercise and stress management in everyday life over the university's own teaching platform – for example, healthy recipes for cooking at home or short fitness exercises.

The CamPuls Instragram feed gives tips on healthy eating or active breaks during online teaching. The professors and instructors have also been made aware of the need to assign the right amount of work and the importance of interaction with students. Topics such as motivation and organisation are now being discussed more – through seminars or information offers – to strengthen and expand students' health-related competence over the long term. 'Of course, the digital offers can only partly replace on-campus social interactions,' says Bogdanski. This makes it even more important to continue developing ideas to support successful interpersonal interaction, which is a central element of university life, despite the corona-related hygiene measures. Such ideas include the limited opening hours offered at the library, or the mixture of on-campus and online lectures that has been implemented at HAW Hamburg through the so-called 'hybrid semester' – naturally always with masks, physical distancing and a lot of caution.

But what will the winter be like?

Sabine Krauß has long since established her own routine. She's developed her own schedule with set days for the individual courses. She's also sought new activities to fill her days and provide balance and distraction – beyond Zoom lectures, homework and streaming services. She's now doing exercise at home in her own apartment, often with videos from the Internet. 'I've rediscovered my passion for making music. And I'm also meeting up with my close friends again outside, for walks and with physical distancing,' she says. She makes regular video calls to family and friends in her home state of Bavaria. And even though she misses the 'carefree' feeling of summer, with time spent in cafes and at get-togethers in the park, the 23-year-old feels well-prepared overall for the long winter and the second lockdown. Only two things are still causing her bigger worries: What will Christmas with the family look like this year? And will she be able to start her compulsory internship in January or February? So far, she hasn't received final confirmation. Because of corona, most companies are being quite cautious. 'I hope that changes,' says Krauß.

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