McMaster professor leads new study on students’ mental health and COVID-19


Published February 1, 2021 at 6:53 pm


An associate professor at McMaster University is leading part of an international study aimed at analyzing the impact of COVID-19 on students’ mental health, and what can be done to cope with the stress.

Sociologist Marisa Young is the Canada Research Chair in Mental Health and Work-Life Transitions and she’s leading the World Mental Health International College Student (WMH-ICS) survey for students at McMaster.

The survey was launched in January and results are expected by March of 2021.

The study is part of a larger project involving the World Health Organization (WHO) that will see students surveyed at 21 universities across 15 countries, allowing for regional and cross-cultural comparisons.

Young is working with the WHO study’s principal investigator, Ronald C. Kessler from Harvard University, and the Canadian survey initiative’s lead investigator, Daniel Vigo from the University of British Columbia.

“Mental health might well be the biggest issue we face as we deal with the fallout of the pandemic in coming years,” says Maris Young. “Across almost all segments of society, we have seen increases in levels of depression, anxiety, substance use and sleep problems, as well as related issues of burnout, isolation and sedentism.”

Young talks about the three avenues, which have generally been compromised by COVID-19:

  1. Macro, ambient stressors, which can be non-specific and all-consuming. You walk out your front door or go to the grocery store and there are signs all around that the world is different than it was a year ago. This can be incredibly unnerving for many, especially those disadvantaged populations who might already be susceptible to mental health issues.
  2. COVID and its impact have robbed people of the usual psychological resources that help us cope with stressful situations, in particular, what’s called “mastery” or a sense of control over your life and immediate surroundings. Without this valuable resource, the onset of mental health problems becomes more likely.
  3. The pandemic has exacerbated the stressors that people might have already been facing. For instance, we know that those with economic hardship are the first to lose their jobs in the lockdown. Parents with young children are struggling without the option of child care.

As the second wave worsens, Young says we can expect further spikes in mental health problems.

“The chronicity of the stress associated with this pandemic is wearing on our society,” said says. “While we are resilient in many ways, but for each individual, there exists a point where their experience of stress turns into distress.”

“Imagine the idea of a bridge collapsing. We’ve seen these examples in 2007 in Minnesota, or in Connecticut in 1984. In both cases, the main span of the bridge collapsed without the provocation of a catastrophic event. Instead, there’s continual stress to the bridge. The slow process of decay and breakdown ultimately reaches a threshold, resulting in collapse.”

Young says we can apply this “stress engineering model” to humans, as well, where there is a threshold at which the chronic stress we endure eventually turns into psychological distress.

Tips for students

University students face a series of unique stressors that can impact their mental health, whether it be moving from home, workloads and deadlines, or the pressure of meeting new people and building new social relationships.

Young says the pandemic has not only added to, but also elevated these stressors for university students, potentially leading to unprecedented distress and other mental health issues.

She offers the following tips for students during the pandemic:

  1. Make sure to connect with others on a daily basis. Social support is key in these times, and while we are limited to virtual contact, it is still beneficial and can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  2. Try to maintain a regular routine and sleep schedule. Sleep is key to cope with the day-to-day stressors students might face. While it’s hard to keep a normal schedule in these very abnormal times, I encourage students to try their best. This includes regular exercise and mealtimes.
  3. Make sure to reach out to others when you need help. I would remind students they are not alone in their struggles. The services from McMaster Student Wellness are available, not to mention a long list of online apps to help students cope with the stressors they’re facing daily –in general, but also specific to the pandemic.
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