This piece was written by one of our contributors; PhD student – Chloe Casey.
Mental health is an important public health issue, especially since the pandemic, lockdowns and physical distancing. Research indicates that self-isolation, social distancing, economic downturn and misinformation have resulted in increased fear and helplessness ,.
Concerns about student mental health are also increasing, with the learning and psychological health of students at more risk since COVID-19 ,. Research from a university in Spain identified that over 50% of students and university staff felt the outbreak had a psychological impact on them . It has been reported that disturbed routine and increased screen time has led to increases in fatigue and depression in students during lockdown . With the shift to online teaching, students who do not have comfortable work environments and IT facilities at home  or those with lower family income stability  are experiencing more stress.
Therefore, as we head into the new academic year and adapt to a new way of university life, it is a great time to think about your own wellbeing and how you tend to cope with stressful situations. Stress results from an imbalance between the stresses you experience and your own resources to cope with these . Coping is described as the actions you tend to use when you are facing a problem or stressful event. Some ways of coping are helpful, but some are unhelpful. This piece will outline some ‘dos and don’ts’ when it comes to coping with stress at university.
…seek emotional support
Research during lockdown suggested that students and young people were more at risk of experiencing loneliness than other demographic groups . It has been predicted that the uncertainty and loneliness experienced could intensify anxiety in students, negatively impacting their education . Student Minds recommend several principles that universities should consider in supporting the mental health of students during the pandemic. Many of these focus on increasing social support and community building. .
Research confirms that social support is key to student experience and wellbeing. A recent study revealed a link between academic stress and lower social support . Their results also indicated that social support was a positive predictor of wellbeing. Other studies indicate that higher levels of social support are important for adjusting to university too .
Making use of your social circle for support is a helpful coping strategy . However, seeking social support can be an emotion-focused coping, as it helps to reduce negative emotions relating to your problem . For example, seeking comfort by complaining about your situation to a friend might make you feel better at the time but doesn’t tackle the problem you are facing. Therefore, it is important to also…
…seek problem-focused support
Most universities provide a range of services for students from counselling, financial, housing, careers and academic support. Students are said to be more likely to succeed academically in universities where a wider range of support services are available . If students seek this type of support from their universities, this can be considered as problem-focused coping . Problem-focused coping involves directly addressing the problem that is causing stress, often leading to the best outcomes. Research suggests that problem-focused coping can also promote mental health by reducing anxiety and depression . Researchers have looked at problem-focused coping in student groups, finding that this was linked to lower psychological distress . The students that were more likely to seek support from their university’s services experienced less personal difficulty, and tended to prepare well for future problems.
These results suggest that coping styles that don’t tackle the cause of a problem can leave students vulnerable to stress. If you are feeling stressed, or in preparation for the future, it could be helpful to make yourself aware of the services that are available from your university.
Social withdrawal is an example of disengagement. Disengagement coping is a way of trying to avoid or deny negative emotions rather than dealing with them. Those who hide from their problems tend to have lower social support as it stops them building and maintaining a support network .
Researchers have looked at disengagement coping in students , finding that social withdrawal was linked to anxiety, depression and reduced social support. Students that felt more supported by others were more likely to express their emotions and solve their problems. These individuals also used less disengagement coping, meaning they were less likely to avoid their problems and deny feelings. So not only does disengagement lead to negative outcomes, it buffers against receiving the social support you need to succeed at university.
…use alcohol to deal with stress
Excessive alcohol consumption is a concern in university students. This is often dismissed as students having a good time. However, there is evidence that students may use alcohol to ‘self-medicate’ during stressful times, using it to escape their problems .
Research has observed that students drink more on days where they felt stressed  and they consumed more drinks with every additional stressor they reported . Worryingly, studies also suggest that stress-related drinking at university was a risk factor for future problems with alcohol.
This is not just a concern in student groups, alcohol use during the COVID-19 outbreak has been labelled a potential public health crisis . Studies suggest that up to 14% of people report drinking more, particularly young adults . Also, one study claims that people who drank alcohol to deal with stress were less able to find anything positive about the pandemic situation and felt less able to cope . So aside from it not being a useful way to relieve stress, relying on alcohol to deal with stress in your student years could predict future problems with alcohol use. Even more reason to focus on healthier ways of coping!
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