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The COVID-19 induced mental health spiral plaguing university students: Interview for Times Radio

Interview with Dr. phil. David Eldred

18.12.2020 - Articles, Interviews, Mental health

The Kusnacht Practice’s psychotherapist, Dr. phil. David Eldred, speaks on Times Radio with host Phil Williams about the declining mental health of university students as they try to adjust to life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Eldred addresses the vulnerability of first year students as they deal with loneliness and isolation, the difficulties in adapting to ‘virtual classrooms’, and the dangers and deceptive nature of self-medication.

Tonight we are focusing on a new survey for the National Union of Students, which has found that more than 50% of students say their mental health has declined since the pandemic began. Many of the 4241 students surveyed in November this year, say they’ve suffered stress, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

The drop off in interaction with other students appears to have hit some of them harder than others, with some finding themselves living completely alone, often in a very new setup if they’re first year students. Despite these difficulties, only a fifth of the students surveyed had sought mental health support for themselves.

So we want to talk about student welfare for the next half an hour with you on Times Radio. If you’ve got a son or daughter who’s just gone off to university, this first term and found themselves isolated, or worse than that COVID positive, and had to deal with that in their first term away from home.

We can discuss this with Dr. David Eldred who’s a psychotherapist at The Kusnacht Practice where they’ve been running a specific youth programme to try and combat some of these issues raised by this NUS survey. David evening to you.

David Eldred: Evening, hello.

And thank you very much for joining us. Alongside Dr. Eldred we have Angelica Onyekawerra, who’s a third year biomedical science student at King’s College London. Angelica, how are you? Angelica, can you hear us okay?

Angelica Onyekawerra: Yeah, I can hear you.

Yeah, great. I can hear you now. Apologies about that. I want to make sure, first of all, that I got your surname right, pronunciation okay on that or is there a better way for me to be doing it?

AO: No, that was fine.

Excellent. Okay thank you, phew! And Max Woodward joins us, first year English student at University College London.Hi, Max.

Max Woodward: Hello.

Max, I’m going to start with you as a first year student, and how has it been? How has the first term been, compared to what you were perhaps mentally prepared for?

MW: Well, surprisingly, for me, and I know I’m not speaking for many students when I say this, but I’ve found it incredibly fun. I’m having a great time. I think I sort of got used to it being online very quickly in terms of education. And social wise, I am in a very large Halls, so there’s sort of a wide variety of people that I’m interacting with, obviously, within the rules that are set within the halls. And I’ve really got along with all the students there.

And I think that that’s the key thing, which has been different for me, and sort of the deciding factor on whether people are having fun in Halls, is just how well people are getting on. I know I’ve got friends who are having a horrible time, just because they haven’t clicked with anyone and haven’t really got much opportunity to go see anyone else.

So you’ve actually found that the lack of other things to do has actually harnessed your community has it?

MW: Yes, I definitely think so. I mean, we’re not all going to be going out and getting blackout drunk, we might head to a bar or a pub, when they’re open, if it’s not locked down. But yeah, we sort of have to look at creative ways of doing things together. And I think I’m very lucky, I’ve managed to surround myself with very positive people, very fun people that I get on with. And it’s been okay.

I do know, and this is why I don’t want to sound like I’m speaking for everyone, I do know a lot of friends, who, even within that group, are struggling with various stresses. I mean, the lockdown affected a lot of them sometimes, especially those who sort of valued going out.

The whole stress of what they’re doing about Christmas really stressed a few of them out, in particular one of my friends. One of my best friends at Halls is actually International. She’s from Australia, and she can’t easily go back home at all. So she’s found that very stressful, particularly since they’re doing a strike system within my Halls, saying that, if you are caught breaking enough of the rules, then they will just send you home. Three strikes and you’re going home. And that’s obviously not very easy for her, being from Australia. So there’s been various impacts on people other than me.

That’s interesting. That’s the first time I’ve heard of that in Halls, the three strikes and you’re out rule. What constitutes breaking the rules, then??

MW: Oh, it can be anything, but they haven’t been strictly enforcing it. So it can technically be if you’re caught not wearing a mask, but the reality is, it’s usually if you’re caught not wearing a mask regularly, that you’ll actually get a strike.

There’s also some slightly sad ones because, as I said, I’ve made really good friends in Halls. But if you’re caught, sort of attempting to socialise in groups, or anything like that, in too large a group, which can easily happen, you know. You’re in someone’s room, and then suddenly, more and more people turn up, and then suddenly, it looks like you’re having a party, when actually it’s just uni students doing what uni students do.

I do remember that very well, from my time in Halls actually. It was quite often, you know, a lot of people have an open door policy, and the kettle would be on, and it was, you know, go and have a brew with somebody ahead of a lecture. That was a very common experience.

I mean, those rules are in place for good reasons, aren’t they? They’re well motivated. But has that put more pressure on you, and your fellow students mentally as another thing to have to think about?

MW: Mentally, I think it would be stupid to say it hasn’t. It hasn’t affected me, I wouldn’t say in a way, which I particularly noticed. I mean, I do feel very stressed sometimes about making sure I’m not breaking the rules. I can’t ever, if I’m in a social situation that looks like it’s getting out of hand, I can’t enjoy it. So I’ll constantly be stressed and constantly be going ‘Guys, can we keep in groups of six and stuff.’

Just, I’m constantly stressed. Obviously, I don’t want to be chucked off my course, or out of Halls because we’ve accidentally looked like we’re throwing a social gathering.

And you can try and throw parties within the rules. But the problem is, it’s sort of being policed by students who are being paid to be there, called Resident Advisors. And the issue with that is they usually, on a yearly basis, take on a more pastoral role. So they are there for your mental health. But this year, that has completely changed. And I don’t think anyone feels particularly close with the Resident Advisors, by no fault of their own, they’re doing a very difficult job trying to enforce the rules. But that is sort of another support system that’s gone.

That’s really interesting. So they’ve gone from being pastoral care to police?

MW: Yes. And there is a sort of feeling, a sort of animosity, I think on both sides; they’re done with us because we’re making their jobs very hard, and they signed up to throw social events. And I know we’ve had a Resident Advisor step down this week because she felt that it wasn’t what she signed up to do.

That’s really interesting. Max, stay with us. Angelica, as a third year biomedical student, tell us about your experience and how you’ve found lockdown.

AO: I guess I’m in a different situation, being in my third year, because I was lucky, I’ve already had my first and second years. And I’m now in my final year, I guess I was the same. I had some kind of good outcomes and bad outcomes from this situation.

There were positives, like, for me being able to kind of do my exams online and be able to do University online, that was really helpful. Because that kind of took away a lot of the stress of having to get up, go to uni and deal with a lot of the stresses that come from going into uni when you just want to study and focus on getting a good grade. So I had that as a positive.
But then, on the other hand, I had a lot of difficulties as well. Like feelings of isolation, feelings of stress from what’s going on with the world, and also kind of worries about what it’s going to be after my degree, how I’m going to get a job. So I had a lot of those concerns going on.

But, I suppose some of those concerns, like getting a job, you were always going to have, that’s not linked to the pandemic is it?

AO: Yeah. I mean, I don’t actually know what the stats are, but because we’ve had this situation with the furlough, and there’s lots of talk about the economy and how the UK economy is going to recover from this. So, there’s been this feeling that it might be harder to get a job after, because of this COVID-19 situation.

So, I don’t know what it’s actually going to be like, but because a lot of companies, like we’ve just seen that Debenhams and Topshop are closing down, businesses are struggling. A lot of people who have been on furlough are losing their jobs, companies are firing people because they just can’t sustain it with how much the economy’s had to deal with due to this lockdown. So that’s kind of been on my mind.

I’m just having a guess, but being a biomedical science student, you might be in a better position to find work than others. Might you in the current climate?

AO: Yeah, I guess.

That vaccine is not going to make itself.

AO: Yeah.

Well, that was quite a downbeat yeah, is that not what you want to do?

AO: I guess, I feel like, probably even outside of COVID-19, I’m in that situation where I’m not sure what I want to do and what I wanted to do after uni. There’s nothing that’s been screaming out to me, so I guess that was already a worry going on. And then there’s this worry like ‘oh, what if I don’t have all the options that I might have had If not for this going on.’

Interesting. I’ll talk to you about a few of those in just a moment, Angelica, if you don’t mind, but let me get to Dr. Eldred then, who’s a psychotherapist at The Kusnacht Practice. Just tell me what you’ve made of what you’ve heard from our two students, who obviously are not totally representative. They’re just two individual students, there’ll be many different experiences, but pick up some themes that they’ve raised with us, David.

DE: Well, I think that of the 4200 students, approximately, that are in the survey, only about 1400 of them are reporting worsening mental health. And it seems like Max is definitely in the 70% that’s not, possibly even in the upper echelons of that 70%. I think that Angelica is also in that upper 70% percent and struggling with a lot of questions that the COVID-19 means for her present and immediate future.

I’m in a mental health clinic here in Zurich, where we’re dealing with adolescents and youths. And I’m looking to see what the National Union of Students survey has actually thought of student mental health support. So, I’m sort of on the other end of this conversation, which is fine with me. But I think Max describes it very well, he’s very fortunate and seems to be in a very energetic, very innovative and creative collective of students in his first year. I mean, I see, of course, and as you also mentioned, the first year students are suffering a great deal in terms of isolation and loneliness.

I would say that we’ve started picking up more youth around June of this year. And I can’t say that the pandemic is the precipitation of the cause of the illness, but it certainly has added a certain amount of stress or distress to these young people. And I think one of the things that we’re seeing is that everybody has their ways of self-medicating distress.

You can self-medicate by jogging or doing yoga or some type of alcohol or wine consumption. Or maybe an occasional eating binge, or other substances. There’s many ways to source what we would call ‘self-medicate’ to soothe yourself.

And the problem here seems to be the isolation, the lack of face-to-face teaching with a lot of these youth at home. The ones who are sort of more, I would say, more intuitive, more vulnerable, more sensitive, more creative, less structured, they have a lot more difficulties with the virtual classrooms.

Anybody who has difficulties with attention is going to have it much more difficult when they have to take classes from home, when he or she has to be all by themselves.

I met a doctor once at a party. We ended up talking about self-medicating and he said to me that for centuries human beings have self-medicated. That’s how we cope with stress, and it depends, it doesn’t have to be necessarily drugs or alcohol. It could be food, it could be all sorts of other things. But that’s what human beings have done to manage stress. Do you concur?

DE: I absolutely concur. And I think, in any way we can manage to cope with stress is great, as long as it’s not destructive to our bodies, ourselves and other people, or it makes us dysfunctional.

How do we cope with the spiral effect? For example, if you’re binge eating through this pandemic, we know that if we have too much sugar you just get a crash, and then you start to feel lethargic, and apathetic. And so, in a way, the thing you’re doing to self-medicate for the pain could actually end up leaving you even lower. Same for drugs, same for alcohol, everything that will raise your mood artificially, will then leave you with a crash, won’t it?

DE: I think that when it’s spiralling down, we would be moving into the general field of depressive mood. And one of the most important things in attempting to cope and deal positively with a depressive mood is really fixing yourself to a daily schedule. Making sure you get up, you have some sort of natural hygiene and exercise. This is very, very important.

I think simple things like ‘No, you don’t drink two or three glasses of wine on Sunday through Thursday night if you have to study on the following days.’ But I think daily structures are very important. Also, reaching out socially to people, reaching out to social contacts, social experiences, even if it’s with people you don’t know that well. Making some sort of a gesture or contacting people you haven’t phoned for a long time. If you’re very isolated, you have to make an extra effort to sort of bring connectivity to other people back into your life, which is a basic need of human beings.

Yeah. And Doctor, what other simple things are there? Simple, almost instant things that students can be implementing next term?

DE: I think there’s a basic sort of popular rule about seeking out activities or experiences, or connectivity to people, in which there are two things that are central: one is savouring – taking time to enjoy small things with people. The other is thinking about what you really are grateful for.

I think the pandemic is sort of like, off the hip, it’s pretty damn depressing, right? It’s really a psychological pandemic as well. Even when a young man, like Max, is doing pretty well, we’re all feeling it to some degree. Some people feel it more than others. There’s different kinds of personality structures. Max seems to be pretty upbeat, and generally, a structure of kind of a young man himself. But there are many people who, by their nature, are not well structured. And that’s good. We need creativity, and inventiveness, and a little bit of craziness to keep the whole culture going, and moving forwards in the arts and so forth.

I think the simplest thing to do, is to not let yourself slip into your self-medication behaviour, and to realise that that’s really not a good choice. I think Angelica was talking about the consumption of sugar, yes? That’s a very tough, downward spiralling way of self-medicating. There’s nobody on the planet who’s not wrestling with that to some degree.

Dr. David Eldred, psychotherapist at The Kusnacht Practice, where they’ve been running a youth programme to try and tap into some of these issues that we’ve been talking about, and why nearly half of the 4241 students surveyed in November by the National Union of Students said their mental health had declined in the light of the pandemic.