COVID-19 and European students’ wellbeing:
The shattering reversal of patterns of interaction Sasha Neuville
Christian Bröer Sociology
Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences University of Amsterdam
I have received significant support and contributions from others, academics or not, throughout the writing process of this thesis.
First, I would like to thank my supervisor, Professor Christian Bröer, who has been intensely present and helpful during the whole writing period. Thank you for your insightful feedbacks and thoughtful comments who helped me improve both my thinking and writing. Besides, thank you for bringing support which helped me stay confident while researching and writing.
Second, I want to acknowledge the help of my second reader, Dr. Evelyne Baillergeau. Thank you for showing interest in my research, following my progress and giving me enlightening comments.
Third, I would like to thank the owner of the Instagram account @anxietedusuperieur, that widely spread my survey and thanks to whom I got valuable and insightful contributions.
Finally, I would like to thank my roommate, Katie Tubbing, who was always a sympathetic ear.
With the pandemic, the times we live in are peculiar and the social structures are disrupted.
Patterns of interaction between individuals are undergoing unprecedented situational changes and we as social beings are forced to adapt. The aim of this research is to study how a certain social group, students in higher education, experiences a health crisis and how they report this experience. The idea is therefore to know how changes in interaction patterns, caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic, affect students differently.
Students are a vulnerable public, so their well-being is fragile as it is subject to much uncertainty. Within this theoretical framework, several hypotheses were formed. Indeed, it was expected in this research that the well-being of students would be particularly affected in relation to the pandemic. It was also expected that this impact would differ according to different socio-cultural contexts. Finally, the last hypothesis stated that physical distancing and consequently changes in social interactions were among the consequences of the pandemic that had the greatest impact on students' well-being.
To study students’ well-being, a phenomenological approach was chosen in order to access the students' lived experience and perception of the Covid-19 crisis phenomenon. For this purpose, several methods were used, including an online survey collecting 'diaries' or experience narratives. This survey received no less than 63 participations. Additionally, 2 interviews and 5 existing testimonies found on social media were used in the analysis.
Finally, the results proved that this crisis had an undeniable negative impact on European students and their well-being. This impact is related to different social and societal changes, although the modification of interaction patterns has had wide negative consequences, putting the health and even the life of some students at risk. It is therefore of paramount importance to address these issues and to support students.
Keywords: wellbeing, students, Covid-19, social interactions
Avec la pandémie, les temps que nous vivons sont particuliers et les structures sociales en sont chamboulées. Les schémas d’interactions entre individus subissent des modifications conjoncturelles sans précédent et les êtres sociaux que nous sommes sont contraints de s’adapter. Cette recherche a pour but d’étudier comment un certain groupe social, les étudiants en études supérieures font l’expérience de la crise sanitaire et comment ils restituent cette expérience. L’idée est donc de savoir comment les changements dans les schémas
d’interactions, provoqués par la pandémie mondiale du Covid-19, affectent différemment les étudiants en études supérieures.
Les étudiants sont un public vulnérable donc leur bien-être est fragile car sujet à beaucoup incertitudes. Dans ce cadre théorique, plusieurs hypothèses ont été formées. En effet, on pouvait s’attendre à ce que le bien-être des étudiants soit particulièrement affecté en lien avec la pandémie. Il était aussi attendu que cet impact diffère selon les différents contextes socio- culturels. Enfin, la dernière hypothèse stipulait que la distanciation physique et par conséquent les changements dans les interactions sociales faisaient partis de conséquences de la pandémie ayant le plus d’impact sur le bien-être des étudiants.
Pour étudier ce bien-être, une approche phénoménologique a été choisie dans le but d’accéder à l’expérience vécue des étudiants et leur perception du phénomène que constitue la crise du Covid-19. Pour cela, plusieurs méthodes ont été utilisée, dont notamment un questionnaire en ligne récoltant des ‘journaux intimes’ ou des récits de vie. Ce questionnaire a suscité pas moins 63 participations. A cela s’ajoute 2 interviews et 5 témoignages existant, trouvés sur les réseaux sociaux.
Finalement, les résultats ont prouvé que cette crise avait un impact négatif indéniable sur les étudiants européens et leur bien-être. Cet impact est lié à différents changements sociaux et sociétaux, bien que la modification des schémas d’interactions a eu de larges conséquences négatives, ce qui met la santé et même la vie de certains étudiants en danger. Il est donc d’une importance primordiale d’adresser ces problèmes et de supporter les étudiants.
Mots clés : bien-être, étudiants, Covid-19, interactions sociales
TABLE OF CONTENT
INTRODUCTION --- 6
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT --- 6
PROBLEM STATEMENT--- 7
RESEARCH QUESTIONS --- 9
Relevance and Importance of the Research --- 10
THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK --- 12
STEPPING OUT OF MEDICALIZATION --- 12
SOCIAL INTERACTIONS AND COVID-19 --- 13
The role of social arrangements in wellbeing --- 13
Social interaction and lack thereof during the pandemic --- 14
STUDENTS AS A VULNERABLE GROUP --- 15
RELEVANCE OF THE RESEARCH --- 19
RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS --- 22
RESEARCH DESIGN: PHENOMENOLOGY --- 22
METHODS AND SOURCES --- 23
Methodological approach --- 23
Data collection --- 24
ETHICAL AND PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS --- 31
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION --- 33
RESULTS --- 33
Demographic Data: --- 33
Thematic Analysis--- 33
DISCUSSION --- 40
Hypothesis and interpretations --- 40
Limitation and bias --- 45
CONCLUSION --- 47
BIBLIOGRAPHY --- 49
APPENDIX --- 53
Background and Context
The year 2020 has been shaped by an unusual event: a global pandemic. The world’s population has been, unequally but largely, affected by the COVID-19 virus. Many different struggles arose, aside from a health crisis and deaths due to the virus, and society and social structures have not been spared; the coronavirus outbreak had a huge impact on different parts of our modern world. It is our duty, us social scientists, to study and evaluate the outcomes of such a particular period. Those outcomes are plural, and no one is spared, it is thus not possible to address them all in a single research. Hence, this research is puting an emphasis on a social group that has been particularly affected by the pandemic: students in higher education.
The aim of this study is thus to focus on the lived experience during the pandemic of one particular public: students. Indeed, young people studying in higher education are “vital organs of society”1 as it is them that are going to shape our future. To undertake higher studies indicated a will of learning and an appliance to participate and play an active role in their community. It is through that education that students help carry our societies towards progress, acknowledging their role in nation-building is hence important. Moreover, students seem neglected by public policies in European countries such as France, The Netherlands or the United Kingdom. The newspaper The Guardian goes as far as speaking about “mass gaslighting of students by both the government and their universities”2. In the light of the fact that they have not been addressed enough in public discourse, some say that the magnitude of the problem is underestimated, and the weight of the measurements seems derisory3. Being a French student expatriated in Amsterdam, I personally witnessed a growing feeling of injustice and inequality, almost generating a sentiment of abandonment. Indeed, whether it is my French friends studying or the people I met at the University of Amsterdam, I noticed a will to be more heard by the government and to be addressed in public discourses. Acknowledging the importance of students’ wellbeing as much – if not more – than the other parts of the population would thus be a first step toward efficient measures and an improvement in their situation.
1 Gupta, R., & Agrawal, R. (2021a). Are the concerns destroying mental health of college students?: A
qualitative analysis portraying experiences amidst COVID‐19 ambiguities. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 1–19.
2 Sodha, S. (2021, January 14). The government has failed thousands of students in England. They deserve a refund. The Guardian.
3 Darame, M. (2021, January 15). Covid-19 : le gouvernement pressé d’ajuster sa politique envers les jeunes. Le Monde.Fr
Therefore, a particular attention is needed, and students must not be neglected. In addition to being a key public in societies’ development, students are also one of the most vulnerable group as they are facing different sort of uncertainties linked to their occupation and the age rank usually implied (although not systematically). Among those uncertainties can be find financial instability, study stress and academic concerns, carrier uncertainty and emotional and psychological instability4. All of these are factors that students’ are normally facing in everyday life, to different degrees. The global pandemic and the countermeasures related have not only worsened those uncertainties, but also brought some more. In a general climate of fear, students have seen their lives change, the education shifted to an online learning and the lockdowns and other restrictions isolated them. Their lives have changed in a manner unseen before, except in war times. The war vocabulary has notably been used multiple times to speak about this uncertain period and the emergency state has been declared in multiple countries. An important anguish is consequently shared by the world’s population and students are amongst the one experiencing the most distress. There is thus a necessity to study and outlines the outcomes of such a peculiar period. In that regard, a few research papers have already been written on the topic, although while exploring these research papers, I felt a lack of qualitative investigations.
There is an increased awareness around the subject lately, people look at the suffering of students in those uncertain times and start to realize that those distresses are not isolated but resembles a public issue. Thus, there is a need to address an underlying issue brought by the COVID crisis, i.e., the decreasing wellbeing of students and the threat it can be to their development and more largely their lives. There are more and more academic research projects investigating the subject5 and I have witnessed a rise of awareness in media of European countries. The fact that students’ wellbeing is threatened during this pandemic is not put into question anymore and it is becoming commonly known that there is indeed an issue. However, there were a majority of quantitative findings and statistics about how the students are feeling.6
4 Darame, M. (2021, January 15). Covid-19 : le gouvernement pressé d’ajuster sa politique envers les jeunes. Le Monde.Fr
5 Cullen, W., Gulati, G., & Kelly, B. D. (2020). Mental health in the COVID-19 pandemic. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine
6 Moore RC, Depp CA, Harvey PD, Pinkham AE Assessing the Real-Time Mental Health Challenges of COVID-19 in Individuals With Serious Mental Illnesses: Protocol for a Quantitative Study JMIR Res Protoc
I believe that if we want to understand how they are actually experiencing the pandemic and the restrictions that goes with it, a qualitative study would be more suitable, especially knowing that it is about sentiment and emotions, which leads me toward a phenomenological method as it is reporting and analyzing lived experiences and how individuals undergo one of multiple phenomenon. The choice of a qualitative, phenomenological methodology is justified by the fact that, as a sociologist, I acknowledge the subjectivity that play a role in categorizing emotions and suffering. Indeed, those types of objects of study are never neutral as it calls out our empathy towards others. Hence, the aim is to step out of a medicalized view as it brings normative categories and diagnosis to characteristics that can have different levels of meanings and interpretations – but I will come back to that.
Moreover, the research projects mainly focused on medical students are predominant7, it would thus be interesting to address the issue at a more general level and talk about all kinds of students. Finally, the very large majority of the sources I have read for now are focusing either on a national level or on generalization using samples and statistics. Yet, the virus is unequally dispatched all over the world and even the members of the European Union – that usually come to an understanding in cross-national crisis like this one – are dealing with it on their own, applying their own restrictions. The face of the pandemic is consequently uneven, and its impacts differ from a country to another, from a student to another. The aim of this research is thus to look at those different impacts on students, what does their lived experience of restrictions look like and how are they truly affected, highlighting the potential differences and similarities between findings. It is already possible to wonder if the findings are going to have a lot of similarities or not. In other words, is the distress similar among European students? If it is not, then why? What make them different? Are personal characteristics relevant or are the social features taking the upper hand? According to research describing perceived efficacy of COVID restrictions8, the differences in governmental gestion and communication about the pandemic are impacting differently individuals. For example, "(publicly) acknowledged uncertainty about the outbreak can reduce the feeling of being able to control the outbreak"9, which can lead to anxiety and paranoia. In other words, the threats to mental health and
7 Meo, S. A., Abukhalaf, A. A., Alomar, A. A., Sattar, K., & Klonoff, D. C. (2020). COVID-19 Pandemic:
Impact of Quarantine on Medical Students' Mental Wellbeing and Learning Behaviors. Pakistan journal of medical sciences, 36
8 Mækelæ, M. J., Reggev, N., Dutra, N., Tamayo, R. M., Silva-Sobrinho, R. A., Klevjer, K., & Pfuhl, G. (2020).
Perceived efficacy of COVID-19 restrictions, reactions and their impact on mental health during the early phase of the outbreak in six countries
wellbeing being due to Covid restrictions vary cross-nationally, which echoes what I highlighted above, the importance of socio-cultural backgrounds.
Nevertheless – as already mentioned – my aim is not to quantify students’ distress as if it could be an indicator. Quite the contrary actually, I believe quantifying those kind of features – distress, unhappiness – would equal hierarchizing sufferings. Instead, I want to put an emphasis on the individual existence and look at the impact of such pandemic on students’ daily life.
Indeed, a lot of different social features are entering the equation when studying the experience of an individual towards a phenomenon. For this precise research project, focusing on students, I believe some insights on socio-cultural backgrounds such as gender, age, discipline and level, and country of residence are necessary.
Following the phenomenological idea that humans are inherently embedded in a social world and that they live through their interactions with others is my departure statement. The social individual is creating his own experience by exchanging with his surroundings, and in response to his socially constituted world. Consequently, individuals sharing commonalities in their interactions with their surroundings are likely to share commonalities in their social perception of the word. In other word, similarities between socio-cultural backgrounds brings similarities in experiences. To give an example, two students studying the same discipline in the same country might share some thought and views of both their social worlds. A counter example can be that if those two students are not the same gender, it is likely to bring differences into their perceptions.
Back in the context of the pandemic, the main impact of the COVID-19 crisis has been precisely on those patterns of social interactions that we usually take for granted. Indeed, as it is part of our subjective world, we do not even notice the importance of our interpersonal experience in our development both regarding our internal and external world. Yet, social interactions patterns are socially constructed with the intervention of several individuals who are part of the same society, which creates a whole, a social norm defining the relations between one another. Therefore, there is no doubt that pandemic measures and especially physical distancing are having a direct impact on those essential interactions. Furthermore, if we acknowledge the “claim that embodied interaction with others is an essential foundation of human experience, then the unprecedented disruption of such interaction is likely to have a
destabilizing effect”.10 This abrupt change might also outline pre-existing differences related to socio-cultural backgrounds and coping patterns. When something that was normal before (for example, being physically close to others, hugging and kissing to say hello) becomes abnormal, it reveals the behaviours and characteristics that were relying on that norm. As Giddens highlights: “we can learn a good deal about day-to-day situations in routine settings from analysing circumstances in which those settings are radically disturbed”11. Where Giddens took the example of disruption cause by war time, the study here is focused on disruption caused by a health crisis.
That leads me nicely to my research question: How are the changing patterns of interaction due to the global COVID pandemic affecting differently students in higher education? This question is raising other ones such as what causes the change in patterns of interaction? How are they experienced by the students? What causes differences in experiences? The idea is to look at difference in experiences of disruptions: what are the different social structures playing a role in differences of experiences? How is the socially constituted world entering the experiences of individuals? Are some social factors having heavier impact than others?
I can already make some assumptions about what social features might be at stake, and raises some questions related. Indeed, it is possible to wonder if the unevenness in governmental restrictions creates an unevenness in students’ lived experience. Or if the social environment also has a role. For example, does being with your family or living alone has a different impact?
Does having a spacious place of living differs from having a small one regarding experiences of the pandemic? To understand better the impact of the pandemic on students I shall find some particularities and overlaps among their lived experiences.
Relevance and Importance of the Research
In the light of what I have said before, students are a vulnerable group that need particular attention and whose distress seem too important to be neglected. If the students are in danger now, it is the future population that is in danger and a generalized suffering of the students now is very likely to engender an unhappiness and malaise then. You would have understood that there is an urge to grasp the ins and outs of the pandemic effects on European
10 Carel, H., Ratcliffe, M., & Froese, T. (2020). Reflecting on experiences of social distancing. The Lancet, 396(10244), 87–88
11 Bury M. Chronic illness as biographical disruption. Sociol Health Illn. 1982
students. Being a scientist means that we have to study those features. Epidemiologist would study the virus and try to predict its next fluctuations. We, social scientists, have to study the related outcomes on social features. However, ‘social features’ is a way too broad formulation to understand each result and we need concrete findings to be able to extract determinant information and analyze them. That is one the reasons I chose to focus on a precise public:
Moreover, as the pandemic is happening right now, right on front of our eyes, only a few studies have been directed and finished yet (such as a study on mental health on wellbeing during the pandemic in G20 countries12), a fewer even in social sciences, and none of them – that I am aware of – chose to adopt a phenomenological gaze on students’ lived experience. This is a highly actual subject with a somehow easily accessible field. I am using the term somehow because the field would be extremely easily accessible if it was not for the physical distancing due to the COVID measures. Indeed, the students of Europe are currently experiencing the pandemic in different manner and it is quite easy to witness or testify on those experiences, just by descripting their daily lives. In normal times it would have been easier to reach out to that public and organize meetings, interviews or other ways to collect data. Even though physical distancing prevents use to work the usual way, this research remains doable, and the data collection stays accessible though it could be necessary to shift some of the methods to an online and adapted form, as I will explain further.
Additionally, I am planning to use phenomenology and solicited diaries which are both rather new and still rare in social sciences research. It can thus give a new way of seeing things and might inspire further research papers.
Finally, this thesis is stepping out of the overall medicalized view on the subject as explained above. This might allow other scholars or citizens to see a new, different and neglected perspectives on the impacts of covid. In this thesis, you will find reported students experiences of the pandemic, with an emphasis on feelings and emotions and interpretations of the potential threats, such as changes in patterns of interactions, can present to their wellbeing.
12 Nurunnabi, M., Almusharraf, N., & Aldeghaither, D. (2021). Mental health and well-being during the COVID- 19 pandemic in higher education: Evidence from G20 countries. Journal of Public Health Research
Stepping out of medicalization
Many recent studies have focused on a medicalized view of wellbeing, restraining it to mental health and using expertise vocabulary. The medicalization is the “process by which medical definitions and practices are applied to behaviors, psychological phenomena, and somatic experiences not previously within the conceptual or therapeutic scope of medicine”13. It allows the use of authority based on an expertise. Medicalization is everywhere since the COVID outbreak, notably in political discourse and emotion, and in citizenship14. As a result, individuals are becoming what Degerman calls ‘homo-medicus’, shifting our thinking in a more medical perspective. That tendency is not new and has already happened in other areas like psychology. Indeed, wellbeing have been progressively medicalized throughout the years and we are now talking about mental health, it allows doctors and health experts to identify
‘diseases’ or ‘disorders’ and provide a cure for those, using diagnosis and treatments. The problem with that perspective is that is focused too much on biological and medical features and forgets the influence of the social, especially when it comes to diseases that cannot be physiologically identified. Moreover, we have to remember that “disease categories are socially and historically constructed”15, thus western-centered. As Conrad also said “race, ethnicity, and culture individually, and in interaction, influence mental health”16 and it is important to keep that in mind.
Besides, medicalization is depoliticizing to some extent. Indeed, seeing well-being threats through the lenses of medicalization can be harmful as it « steals attention and resources away from changing the social structures and expectations that can produce such suffering in the first place. ». In addition to that, a medicalized view forgets cultural backgrounds and particularities (which is also related to the western-centered vision mentioned above). I thus aim to shift to an emphasis on individuals themselves and on the society they evolve in, without
13 Degerman, D. (2020). The Political Is Medical Now: COVID-19, Medicalization and Political Theory. Theory
& Event 23(5), S-61-S-75.
15 Clark, J. (2014). Medicalization of global health 2: the medicalization of global mental health. Global Health Action, 7(1), 24000
16 Conrad P., Slodden C. (2013) The Medicalization of Mental Disorder. In: Aneshensel C.S., Phelan J.C., Bierman A. (eds) Handbook of the Sociology of Mental Health. Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research.
any attempt to associate their behavior to medicalized labels. This is the reason why I am using the term wellbeing and not mental health.
In short, I would like to look at well-being threats due to the pandemic not in a medical way but more with my sociologist’s lenses. In sociology there is a need to look at mental health outside of its medicalization, hence speaking about wellbeing. We have to step out of that
‘biomania’ and I want to emphasize the fact that the mental health struggles are not only due or triggered by biological/psychiatric features but there is also a significant impact of social characteristics, whether they are internal or external, at the individual level or at the societal level. This means looking at factors impacting one’s wellbeing (distress, uncertainty, anguish, pressure…) not in terms of diagnosis and treatment but more in terms of social factors and interactions that leads to those ‘wellbeing threats’. Consequently, I am following Blair Wheaton’s line of thought by criticizing and stepping out of ‘biomania’: “the implicit belief that if we just drill down far enough in biology and genetics, we will explain most of the variance in most behaviors”17. In that field, sociologists have to prove themselves and the validity of the research both to “the medical and biological professions about the role of social environment”18, but also by proving to the rest of sociology that emotions and feelings indeed play an important social role, and inequalities in their repartition impact social life19.
This is the departure statement that influenced me to look more into phenomenology as it is putting an emphasis on the importance of situational context and lived experience, as we shall see in the methods part.
Social interactions and Covid-19
The role of social arrangements in wellbeing
After explaining the non-medicalized aspect of my research, it is necessary to bring a stronger attention to social features and processes that have significant outcomes on individuals and groups of individuals. Historically, the sociology of mental health used to base itself on other disciplines like psychology and psychiatry, relying on health fields and experts. Horwitz explains in a paper how important it is to look further than the individual isolated, meaning
17 Wheaton, B. (2001). The Role of Sociology in the Study of Mental Health ... and the Role of Mental Health in the Study of Sociology. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42(3), 221.
there is a necessity to study social arrangements, structures and infrastructures influencing wellbeing of people or populations: "Sociology of mental health and illness have traditionally relied on individual-level, subjective states and not on macro-level, social outcomes, as measures of the dysfunctional consequences of society”20. As social structures and cultures are social systems-specific and not reliant to individuals only, we need to shift the focus to social arrangements and study the consequences that they may have. In short, we need to include both macro and micro levels, both social and individual focus, to be able to get a full understanding of the potential outcomes on wellbeing.
This research fits in the social consequence model, as it is aiming to “elucidate the ways in which society impacts mental health as distinct from isolating the causes of a particular mental health problem in order to prevent or treat it”21. In other words, the goal is to look at social arrangements and organizations to identify the various consequences they can have on various individuals. The main statement is that social processes have influences on one’s wellbeing. Moreover, the norm is associated to being healthy, so everyone is treated as mentally healthy by default, without any characteristics proving it. It brings the question whether psychological diseases are real or just unnormal social behaviors.
Social interactions are, in my opinion, a relevant, basic social arrangement that every individual experiences. This is why those interactions have a central role in personal and societal development. As a sociologist, it is of my knowledge that societies have particular characteristics and features that differ from a society to another, yet always have consequences on the individuals being part of that society. Moreover, it is also known in social sciences that individuals construct themselves throughout their lives thanks to, or because of, the interactions they have with other individuals (here it echoes to the different types of socializations everyone undergo in a lifetime).
Social interaction and lack thereof during the pandemic
As explained, I am placing social interactions on a pedestal regarding their importance on social and individual characteristics. Consequently, I believe that the reversal of patterns of interaction and the lack of social contact is the biggest and heaviest side effect of the pandemic:
20 Horwitz, A. V. (2002). Outcomes in the Sociology of Mental Health and Illness: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going? Journal of Health and Social Behavior
21 Aneshensel, C. S. (2005). Research in Mental Health: Social Etiology versus Social Consequences. Journal of Health and Social Behavior
“I’m not dying from the pandemic, I’m dying of skin hunger”22 said a woman interviewed in a recent study in Denmark. The face of our society has radically changed the past year and simple, yet tremendously important things, such as hugging or kissing, has been taken away from us, social individuals. Physical touch and intimacy are now diabolized and what was enjoyable then, became frightening. As Løgstrup highlights, “it is a human precondition to be entangled with each other”23; individuals are thus interdependent, and they construct their social world through interactions with others. This quote from Missel et al. illustrates that well:
“Proximity and regular physical touch are essential for us as human beings to do well both mentally and physically. Loving hugs and emotional closeness not only feel nice here and now but are a fundamental human desire, kick-starting several beneficial processes in the body that are of great importance to our overall state of health”24.
In sum, skin hunger and crave for social interactions are a serious symptom of the pandemic, that affects both ill and not ill. It echoes, to some extent, to Aristotle’s famous saying, “the man is by nature a political animal”. In other words, having social interactions and living in society are part of the nature of a human being, and the lack of it inherently has serious impact that this paper aimed to study. Furthermore, the World Health Organization defines health as “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”25. Consequently, I am putting an emphasis on both the social and the mental states of wellbeing during covid, but most importantly the relationship between the two.
Students as a vulnerable group
Studying social consequences implies to look at society and social organizations and identify the potential risks those social structures are presenting to different populations26. In other words, it means identifying vulnerable groups and what impact those social consequences have on those groups. In that regard, I am identifying students in higher education as one of
22 Missel, M., Bernild, C., Christensen, S. W., Dagyaran, I., & Berg, S. K. (2021). It’s Not Just a Virus! Lived Experiences of People Diagnosed With COVID-19 Infection in Denmark. Qualitative Health Research,
23 Wheaton, B. (2001). The Role of Sociology in the Study of Mental Health ... and the Role of Mental Health in the Study of Sociology. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42(3), 221
25 Bickenbach J. (2015) WHO’s Definition of Health: Philosophical Analysis. In: Schramme T., Edwards S.
(eds) Handbook of the Philosophy of Medicine. Springer, Dordrecht
26 Aneshensel, C. S. (2005). Research in Mental Health: Social Etiology versus Social Consequences. Journal of Health and Social Behavior
those vulnerable group, exposed to risk factors linked to their social position. A vulnerable group is, according to the World Health Organization, a group “unable to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impacts of disaster”27. It also implies potential risks to develop mental health issues or more largely illbeing. I believe that students as a social group are falling under this definition.
I have previously written a paper entitled ‘Supporting the students’28, in which me and two colleagues are explaining in more details what characterized this public and why is it exposed to risk, but also the link with the pandemic and the ways it affects particularly this public. In this paper, I highlighted that wellbeing struggles among students in higher education is a growing problem, the number of university students with these problems has risen significantly over the years29. The reason why a lot of students experience wellbeing issues, in comparison with other groups in society, is because of stressors they experience in their daily lives. Based on a psychology article written by Linda Cook, those stressors can be listed by: moving to another place without family or friend; balancing workload and class schedules with job and other responsibilities; handling long-distance relationships with significant others; difficulty with time management; greater academic demands; financial problems; concerns about graduating and getting a job; peer pressure and so on30.
The paper I wrote with my colleagues31 explains shortly this particular fragility of students, and further develops the relation it can have with the Covid outbreak. Based on different literature, it states that students are one of the most insecure social groups in modern society32. Indeed, students or more broadly young people, are facing a ‘lifetime of flexibility’, to employ Standing’s phrasing. In other words, evolving in this more and more flexible, globalized- capitalist world makes people in higher education highly sensible to precarity and uncertainty.
Notably because being a student implies paying different fees while simultaneously preventing from working full-time as they have to attend classes. Students however do often work part- time in order to afford a living, especially in international cities and universities, and even more if the student is expatriated. Students’ precariousness result in a lifestyle which is often accompanied with feelings of stress, tension and anguish. Besides, “socioeconomic status,
27 Vigdis Lauvrak, Senior advisor, Lene Juvet (2020). Social and economic vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. Norwegian Institute of Health Research, 1–35.
28 QUARANZINE: Supporting the students (Final paper). (2020). Sasha Neuville, Sara Wentink, Rowin Krom
29 Storrie, K., Ahern, K., & Tuckett, A. (2010). A systematic review: students with mental health problems—a growing problem. International journal of nursing practice, 16(1), 1-6.
30 Cook, L. J. (2007). Striving to help college students with mental health issues. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 45(4), 40-44.
31 QUARANZINE: Supporting the students (Final paper). (2020). Sasha Neuville, Sara Wentink, Rowin Krom
32 Standing, G. (2012). The Precariat: From Denizens to Citizens? Polity
operationalized as education and income, is inversely associated with the rates of almost all disorders”33. These feelings however are not solely caused by financial instability. Other influential factors include the pressure of making life altering decisions, high stress and pressure related to studying and the fear of failing34, as mentioned above.
Additionally, it can also be hard to seek help as there is a stigma around illbeing and mental health issues. This can even result in a complete rejection of an individual who experiences the struggles. As a result, people being in a bad state mentally, who are unwell, can develop an expectation of getting rejected by others, independently of whether this is true or not. This then results in increasing insecurity for those individuals35 and limit the ability of these students to obtain housing, jobs and education, some students even experience forms of social isolation.
All the consequences of the described process of stigmatization can be the cause for students struggling to not get the help needed.
Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, students, as many others, are already in self isolation thus seeking help is even harder than in normal times. Isolation and physical distancing can result in not getting the necessary support nor treatment36. This thesis is also a statement underlining the particular attention this public need, as it is particularly affected by the pandemic in multiple ways, as we shall see in the analysis and results part. Indeed, the negative feelings and emotions that students usually experience are only exacerbated by the Covid crisis. The stress and angst related to studying are combined with stress and angst related to the pandemic. The pandemic and the physical distancing that it implies is aggravating the wellbeing threats towards students.
Indeed, the stay-at-home restrictions, among others, are participating to even more isolation.
For some, especially students that moved away from home and already had to handle long- distance relationships with their loved ones, physical distancing is likely to result in social isolation, which is likely to result in loneliness, a threat to wellbeing. Social isolation is defined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as a lack of social connection37. It means that someone can feel socially isolated without necessarily being physically isolated, although a physical isolation is inclined to create or worsen a social one. There are multiple ways in which
33 Jackson, L. (2018). Reconsidering vulnerability in higher education. Tertiary Education and Management
34 Moeller, R. W., Seehuus, M., & Peisch, V. (2020). Emotional Intelligence, Belongingness, and Mental Health in College Students. Frontiers in Psychology).
35 Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. C. (2001). Conceptualizing stigma. Annual review of Sociology, 27(1), 363-385.
36 Storrie, K., Ahern, K., & Tuckett, A. (2010). A systematic review: students with mental health problems—a growing problem. International journal of nursing practice, 16(1), 1-6.
37 Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions. (2021). Center for Disease Control and Prevention
the pandemic can be said to worsen students’ situation and increase potential stressors, menacing again their wellbeing. Among them can be cited the job crisis as the pandemic had the effect of reducing the numbers of jobs available. Precarious jobs are the most concerned in that regard, and they are also the ones that students usually have. Thus, not only many students lost their jobs and their source of income, but it also creates a climate of uncertainty for the future as an economic crisis is emerging. That creates worries for both short-term, related to loss of a source of income, and long-term related to uncertain times ahead. Furthermore, the lockdown also had significant impact as it caused the homes of students to simultaneously become a living place, working place, and a place of relaxation, which can make time management more difficult. The division between time for studying, working and relaxing becomes blurred, both in terms of time and space, which can also be a cause for extra stress.
In sum, people lose a lot of structure in their lives which threatens their wellbeing. In the particular case of students, they intensely need this structure because they are already in an uncertain and sensitive social position, thus it reinforces theses sensitivities. Consequently, Covid-19 crisis have an impact reinforcing the stressor students already experience in normal times38. One of the biggest changes due to the pandemic impacting students’ wellbeing are, as I explained, the social isolation and exclusion due to government regulations. This is even more true for international students, who are far from home and thus have difficulty to socially interact in a meaningful way with other people.
The majority of the readings I have done are highlighting the fact that students are an important and special group in society and that they are particularly affected by the pandemic. As Gupta and Agrawal formulated: “students are major components of this modern educative society; a student losing on an entire year of education can be the worst-case scenario.”39. An Italian research is also stressing the fact that university students are a special group and that their daily lives are truly affected as they are “based on relationships, contacts with other people, physical activities, university activities, travel, and gatherings”40.
38 Cook, L. J. (2007). Striving to help college students with mental health issues. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Service
39 Gupta, R., & Agrawal, R. (2021a). Are the concerns destroying mental health of college students?: A
qualitative analysis portraying experiences amidst COVID‐19 ambiguities. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 1–19.
40 Villani, L., Pastorino, R., Molinari, E., Anelli, F., Ricciardi, W., Graffigna, G., & Boccia, S. (2020). Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health and Psychological Well-Being of Italian University Students. SSRN Electronic Journal, 1–10.
Relevance of the research
As Gupta and Agrawal are showing in their paper41, qualitative studies are normally more suited for such subject: “The quantitative study represents a limited number of respondents trying to represent the population, but qualitative analysis is an actual representation of the whole community”. Overall, their paper is underlining the different factors playing an active role in the worsening of students’ wellbeing. They retained six non-exhaustive factors: psychological concerns; online learning; overseas injustice; academic disruptions and career concerns; emotional suffering; financial concern. Expect for overseas injustice and online learning, those factors already existed before the pandemic outbreak. However, their impact has been unprecedently deepened by the crisis. This echoes what Blair Wheaton (of whom I have already spoken above) way saying regarding the need to emphasize the fact that mental health struggles are not only due or triggered by biological or psychiatric features but there is also a huge and too frequently neglected impact of social features42. The social features that are here in question are the pandemic and the changes it creates.
Last but not least, I want to present here the elements in the texts I have read that confirm my assumption that the threat COVID-19 is representing to students’ wellbeing is important and need to be addressed. The research projects and articles I have come across seem to all acknowledge the fact there is a negative correlation between the pandemic and student’s wellbeing (or mental health, depending on the medicalization). Alarming figures emerge regularly, to report some: in France, 43% of students are suffering from depression, which is four times more than ten years before43; in the Netherlands 18% are ranking their life satisfaction below a five (on 10)44; in Italy 72,93% of students felt depressed45.
Thus, it is not bold to say that there is an urgent need to act and support this public.
Many of the papers are calling out policymakers and outlining the concerns so they can have the scientific tools and findings to act accordingly. The next citation in summarizing this nicely:
41 Gupta, R., & Agrawal, R. (2021a). Are the concerns destroying mental health of college students?: A
qualitative analysis portraying experiences amidst COVID‐19 ambiguities. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 1–19.
42 Wheaton, B. (2001). The Role of Sociology in the Study of Mental Health ... and the Role of Mental Health in the Study of Sociology. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42(3), 221.
43 Aziz Essadek, Laurent Mucchielli, Thomas Rabeyron, & Arnaud Rey. (2021, February 4). « Nous disposons de données qui questionnent l’émergence possible d’une épidémie de suicides chez les étudiants ». Le Monde.
44 Cullen, W., Gulati, G., & Kelly, B. D. (2020). Mental health in the COVID-19 pandemic. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 113(5), 311–312.
45 Villani, L., Pastorino, R., Molinari, E., Anelli, F., Ricciardi, W., Graffigna, G., & Boccia, S. (2020). Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health and Psychological Well-Being of Italian University Students. SSRN Electronic Journal, 1–10.
“Several countries within the G20 have taken significant steps to support health and well-being issues for university students; however, numerous countries are far behind in addressing this issue. Hence, government leaders of G20 countries, policymakers, and health providers should promptly take the necessary measures to regulate the outbreak, improve safety measures to decrease disease transmission, and administer those who demand medical attention.”46
Finally, there are two quantitative research projects I would like to discuss rapidly here as I want their results to be included in my theoretical framework and have them in mind while investigating. The first one is outlining the relation between outside time and mental health.47 The aim was to know if changes in outside time have an impact on individuals’ mental state.
Using a survey spread through online forms, this report is giving us some information: as we could have expected, people are indeed spending less time outside in the context of COVID-19 (social distancing and stay-at-home measure having a role here). Most importantly, the research showed that even if going outside is indeed lowering stress and anxiety, the difference of impact between pre-pandemic and during pandemic is not that significant. Actually, it is more in the other way around that we have relevant results, meaning that not going outside or reducing overall outside time is worsening mental health. In other words, there is no significant positive impact of going outside but there is significant negative impact of not going outside. Finally, there is no important difference of impact with different restrictions. Consequently
« Understanding that maintaining or increasing outside time still has an effect on stress and (positive mental health) after controlling for public health restriction is especially important during the pandemic”48. It shows how lockdowns and stay-at-home restrictions can lower the wellbeing of individuals, but more importantly how promoting and allowing outside time can be a good way to support the population and minimize the effects of restrictions on their wellbeing.
Furthermore, I have read a paper studying the effects of COVID on Italian students’ wellbeing, which is a subject very close to mine, although using different methods (which changes a lot
46 Nurunnabi, M., Almusharraf, N., & Aldeghaither, D. (2021). Mental health and well-being during the COVID- 19 pandemic in higher education: Evidence from G20 countries. Journal of Public Health Research, 9(s1), 1–9
47 Cindrich, S. L., Lansing, J. E., Brower, C. S., McDowell, C. P., Herring, M. P., & Meyer, J. D. (2021).
Associations Between Change in Outside Time Pre- and Post-COVID-19 Public Health Restrictions and Mental Health: Brief Research Report. Frontiers in Public Health, 9, 1–6
48 Cindrich, S. L., Lansing, J. E., Brower, C. S., McDowell, C. P., Herring, M. P., & Meyer, J. D. (2021).
Associations Between Change in Outside Time Pre- and Post-COVID-19 Public Health Restrictions and Mental Health: Brief Research Report. Frontiers in Public Health, 9, 1–6
regarding process and findings), namely quantitative tools at a national-level, and is still medicalized to some extent. Overall, this study shows that there is structural distress among Italian students with aggravating factors such as fear, social distancing, being a woman, studying medicine… The paper provides some figures that speak for themselves: “The sample size was 501, of whom 35.33% were classified as anxious and 72.93% as depressed.” 49
Having this theoretical framework in mind, different hypothesis were formed, which are the following:
- Students are particularly struggling with wellbeing in relation to the pandemic - Those struggles are different in relation to socio-cultural backgrounds
- Physical distancing and consequently changing patterns of interaction are among the restrictions having the most impact
I shall try to verify those hypotheses by analyzing the data I collected after explaining my methods. Now that I have outlined the subjects of discussion, aims and relevance of this research, I can go deeper in the methodological approach.
49 Villani, Leonardo and Pastorino, Roberta and Molinari, Enrico and Anelli, Franco and Ricciardi, Walter and Graffigna, Guendalina and Boccia, Stefania, Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health and
Psychological Well-Being of Italian University Students
RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS
Research design: phenomenology
Following the previously stated characteristics, my research was designed in a qualitative way. Again, I believe that looking at such concerns in a quantitative way or speaking about lived experiences, emotions and feeling through figures and rates are not only dehumanizing but also risk missing the essence of the object or subject of study. Moreover, my research did not present any necessity to study big data and provide statistics. On the contrary, it putted a focus on a more individualistic and relationist level. Indeed, getting insights on how students undergone such a crisis and how they portrayed their experiences was the core of this study.
This research is interpretative as it is aiming to draw the link between patterns of interaction and the changes they are undergoing with the impact on the wellbeing of students in higher education. It looks at to role of social features in the study of wellbeing and the lack thereof, through sociological lenses. To be more precise, I wanted to focus on a particular qualitative methodology: phenomenology. Phenomenology follows Husserl’s line of thought (retaken by authors such as Ricoeur or Merleau-Ponty), and is the study of the lived experience, it “is concerned with aspects of experience that are so deeply rooted in our lives that we typically overlook them, seldom reflecting on their nature.”50 In phenomenology, the sociologist occupies the position of spectator of the subject’s social world51. The phenomenological methodology goes through three main phases, namely: description, reduction, and interpretation52. Consequently, the aim for the researcher is to step out from his preconceptions in order to access the essence of the phenomenon, and to catch the things as they manifest themselves. Hence, the description of an experience goes without any pre categories, it mentions what the subject feels and describes, excluding any sort of judgment and considering each experience in its own singularity53. It is thus a rather inductive methodology.
Moreover, phenomenology goes from the statement that each individual has its own social world both subjectively and objectively constituted, in which embodied interactions play a
50 Carel, H., Ratcliffe, M., & Froese, T. (2020). Reflecting on experiences of social distancing. The Lancet, 396(10244), 87–88
51 Melançon, J. M. (2007). La compréhension phénoménologique du monde social. La Vie Des Idées, 1–7.
52 Salada, M. L. A. (2016). LA PHÉNOMÉNOLOGIE COMME MÉTHODE POUR FAIRE LA RECHERCHE DE L’EXPÉRIENCE VÉCUE. UNESP, 1–24
53 Ribau, C., Lasry, J. C., Bouchard, L., Moutel, G., Hervé, C., & Marc-Vergnes, J. P. (2005). La phénoménologie : une approche scientifique des expériences vécues. Recherche En Soins Infirmiers
central role. Yet, in the context of the pandemic, our classical patterns of interaction with our peers are challenged like never before.
Phenomenology, consequently, felt like the most suited methodology to design my research as I was precisely looking for students’ experiences and perceptions in a period where what was familiar before, became strange and inaccessible. Thus, it is focusing on the interactions individuals used to have before the pandemic (but it can also be related to health threats, or global uncertainty) and do not have anymore. Phenomenology would thus allow me to understand those usually taken for granted interactions, and what is at stake when they undergo such alteration. Indeed, as our lives are altered, we can “learn on which human experiences are invariant and which are not and include cultural and social differences”54. When an essential particularity of social beings – interactions – suddenly disappears, it gives the researcher an easier, more visible access to this object of study. In the dynamic of a phenomenological methodology, I thus must, as a researcher, observe the social world of the participants and study the phenomenon they are experiencing in a descriptive way. I had investigated the impact of social interactions and lack thereof. Finally, in the position of a researcher, my social world must interfere the least possible in the data collection and analysis.
Indeed, getting access to the social world of an individual and being able to analyze it means putting aside unrelated social world (as the researcher’s). In order to do that, I used multiple methods that I will develop in the next part, after outlining the general methodological approach.
Methods and Sources
In order to answer my research question, namely: “How are the changing patterns of interaction due to the global COVID pandemic affecting differently students in higher education?”, a diversity of types of data collection was used. Knowing how students are – differently – affected by the pandemic was implying to get access to their lived experience of the current crisis we are all undertaking. After testing different types of data collection, two of them stepped out as the most suitable approach in a qualitative, phenomenological design.
54 Carel, H., Ratcliffe, M., & Froese, T. (2020). Reflecting on experiences of social distancing. The Lancet, 396(10244), 87–88
Those two types of data collection are ‘diaries’ and open collaborative research. However, I did also include pre-existing data and interviews in my methodological approach. The only quantitative data necessary were the demographics characteristics of my samples. Those data were needed to have an insight on the socio-cultural background of the participants, and to highlight the potential biases of the data collection.
Still in the phenomenological methodology, I was aiming to collect descriptive data that would influence the least possible the participant. The ‘diary’ data collection is the most in line with that goal, as I shall explain further. Moreover, as I already mentioned, I am using a rather inductive and interpretivist methodology, meaning that even if I know that I am looking for lived experiences and consequences of the pandemic on wellbeing, I do not know or assume beforehand what those consequence may be. The goal is to let the data speak for itself and bring an analysis on what the narratives of experiences are highlighting. Here, I am inspiring myself with Ricoeur’s phenomenological approach, stipulating that putting ideas into written words may highlight underlying meanings. "The task of the interpreter is therefore not to look behind the text, […] but rather to interpretively unfold the issue which the text is pointing to"55. This will be developed more in the analysis part.
The single day ‘diary’ (or storytelling) survey:
For data collection, I tested my interview and my ‘diary’ survey on a second-year bachelor French student, and looking at the result, focusing on the diaries appeared to be a better idea (although I am still planning to keep two interviews that did have relevant information for analysis). The ‘diary’ form of data collection was, in my opinion, restoring the lived experience well and was highly more practical in terms of diffusion in pandemic times. A solicited diary is when the participants recall and report their experiences at the demand of the researcher. The method I am using is a – almost – free-form of diary where the diarist freely chooses the length and the content, although with some light guidelines as I am asking the diarist to describe a certain period (pre-pandemic and during). The biggest advantage of this is that “unstructured
55 Missel, M., Bernild, C., Christensen, S. W., Dagyaran, I., & Berg, S. K. (2021). It’s Not Just a Virus! Lived Experiences of People Diagnosed With COVID-19 Infection in Denmark. Qualitative Health Research
diary can provide rich and meaningful qualitative data”56. Another big advantage of using diary collection through a web form (online survey) is that it reduces the need for transcriptions, and keeps the text as the diarist wrote it, without any intervention of the researcher. Moreover, as the form was accessible through web links (using Google forms), it gave more convenience and comfort as the diarist were able to fill it in a diversity of place (on public transports, on their phone... etc.). Besides, “through providing some degree of control (by the participant) over the research process, the email-diary facilitated a more equal relationship between participant and researcher”57 which is usually appreciated. Finally, the simplicity of the method and the ease to fill the form were also benefit of this method. Johns and Woolley, when they used email-diaries for a research, reported that even with “no, or few instructions but people reported that they knew what was excepted from them”58 and participants reported appreciating the simplicity of the method, which encourages participation and completion. However, it is important to note that the method I am using is not exactly the same as the solicited diary or the usual diaries studies in social sciences59, as it is not collecting data on the long-term, but punctually and through a survey. It can be more associated to a feedback study as I am asking to reflect and recall a precise phenomenon. I am still calling my data diaries as they suit the description of solicited diaries apart from the fact that it is a punctual reflection on experience and phenomenon, and not a long term one.
As I am aiming to study lived experiences, being the least influential possible through my data collection was of high importance if I wanted to access genuine restitutions of experiences. This is why I tried to think of a quite neutral form of data collection. I believe the questions I selected in the survey are in line with this neutrality, thus less influencing the participant. The small survey I created presents a few demographic questions such as age, gender, discipline and level of studies, or home situation. After filling the demographics, the participant is asked to answer two broad questions, without any word expectations. The questions are the following:
- “In the form of a diary, describe a typical weekday BEFORE the pandemic. Don't forget to talk about your feelings! (no word limit, your choice of length)”
56 Jones, A., & Woolley, J. (2014). The email-diary: a promising research tool for the 21st century? Qualitative Research
57Jones, A., & Woolley, J. (2014). The email-diary: a promising research tool for the 21st century? Qualitative Research
59 Ohly, S., Sonnentag, S., Niessen, C., & Zapf, D. (2010). Diary Studies in Organizational Research. Journal of Personnel Psychology
- “In the form of a diary, describe a typical weekday DURING the pandemic. Don't forget to talk about your feelings! (no word limit, your choice of length)”
As I have a great access to the French field, I made two surveys, one in English and one in French. I broadcasted both widely but got a lot more participations for the French one. This can be explained by the fact that I engaged with my personal surrounding to collect their experience, but also thanks to an Instagram account called @anxietedusuperieur (translatable to “anxiety in higher education”) that accepted to share my survey. Thanks to that, I had a lot of participations from student of different backgrounds. The French survey got 43 participations, and the English version 20, which makes a total of 63 diaries. The length of the diaries was chosen by the respondents, thus vary depending on the person writing. Some answers were a sentence long, some others were a page long, and overall people wrote a paragraph describing a day in their life. The risk of that method was the potential lack of involvement of the participants. Indeed, as I made the form looked like a survey (while it is actually more promoting storytelling), participants may have lacked exhaustivity in their answers. Nevertheless, keeping this survey design was, in my opinion, it was more playful and less engaging for the participants. Moreover, the lack of exhaustivity was also an interesting variable to analyse. Surprisingly, the majority of participants did ‘play the game’ and answered as they were writing real diaries, which was exactly what I was looking for. Finally, letting the participants choose what themes they wanted to address freely in their diaries was an adequate way of preserving authenticity and accessing the lived experience. Indeed, providing a few information on the research and letting participants spontaneously decide what they wanted to talk about was a conscious choice that had the effect of showing a diversity of diaries. That diversity would, later on, allow me to identify overlaps and differences between diaries during the analysis process.
Nevertheless, the diary methodology has its limits as it requires the participants to recall how their life was before, thus memory enters which can alter the reality. However, two reasons make me believe that this limitation is minimized by the design of my research: first, I do think that remembering factors that were there before the pandemic and that has vanished now is a rather easy exercise as it brings frustration. Second and mostly, I am asking the participants’
lived experience, so I do not especially need to access the intact reality, what I want is to know how the participants experienced the phenomenon. Accessing the participant’s subjectivity is in the core of my study, so the memory of post-pandemic live does not need to be fully objective. Still, the experience of the life before pandemic is likely to take another sense and be reconstructed by the experience of the present, of the life during pandemic. However, this subjective reconstruction remains a relevant matter for analysis as it shows how students re-