Undergraduate anxiety, Covid-19 and the return to on-campus learning

September marks the beginning of the academic year. For many young people, this means the first taste of life on campus as an undergraduate student: moving away from home, making new friends, and adjusting to a different learning environment. This excitement, however, is often paired with an apprehension towards the sudden change in routine.

‘Undergraduate Anxiety’ is not a new term for the worries of students moving to university. But, has the disruptiveness of Covid-19 on the education system – with home schooling, social distancing, and a lack of exams – heightened these concerns? And what impact will it have on the wellbeing of students starting university this year?

Covid:aid talked to neuroscientist, author, and mental health expert, Dr Dean Burnett, to find out more.

How has Covid-19 complicated the transition from high school to university?

The move to university is a major life event which happens during adolescence – the most tumultuous time neurologically. This is a time when your brain begins to mature and evolve at different speeds. Your emotions, for example, mature faster because they are more fundamental. But the frontal lobes, which regulate your emotions, take longer because they are more complex. So, you have this long period where your emotions are powerful and your ability to control them is reduced. This means the move to university coincides with an already chaotic time in a young person’s life. Then you then have the added stress of moving to a new place, where you don’t know anyone and have to look after yourself for the first time. 

Pre-Covid, there were a lot of positive things to balance out this disruption. Yes, you might be away from home, but you were independent, you had access to a student loan, it was liberating! So, the typical student experience was an enjoyable one. With the outbreak of Covid, especially pre-vaccines, all of the positives were immediately cancelled out. You couldn’t socialise, you were paying to stay in student accommodation and accessing learning materials online because you were told you couldn’t go near anyone. You can see how that would be significantly more stressful for students on campus. 

Now, although the restrictions are less severe, there is a lingering caution towards meeting new people and sharing spaces with others. This uncertainty causes stress in the brain meaning the move to university will have greater mental health consequences.

What advice would you give to students who are nervous about mixing with new people as a result of the pandemic?

After a year of not interacting with others, you will be rusty, and it will take more effort to handle it right. But it can be positive, too. Peer interaction is one of the things the adolescent brain craves because at this time, the part in charge of making social connections is at its most powerful. So, being in a new place alongside other young people will be good for your mental health.

How does the risk of another lockdown add to feelings of ‘undergraduate anxiety’?

Covid -19 and lockdowns add to students’ concerns because they make the university experience less robust. You risk being forced to stay in university accommodation where there’s not a lot to do and you no longer have the security of living with your parents.  There’s an extra element of stress in relation to homesickness because when the option to go home is taken away from you, it will potentially weigh on your mental health.

Learning how to function independently as an adult is part of the university experience but no one’s ever had to do that in the middle of a pandemic!

Peer interaction is one of the things the adolescent brain craves because at this time, the part in charge of making social connections is at its most powerful. So, being in a new place alongside other young people will be good for your mental health.

Are we more empathetic towards the experience of ‘undergraduate anxiety’ as a result of Covid-19?

In part, yes. Mental health awareness is a much bigger topic at university now, where previously it wasn’t part of the discourse. The pandemic will have contributed to this in a good way because it has given us all the experience of isolation, of a lack of control and a constant anxiety about the wider world. So, it has made mental health more tangible. 

But awareness doesn’t always equal understanding. For example, you can’t treat mental health like you would treat a physical injury: there’s no cure or recovery time. Instead, it’s about learning to manage the issue and that’s more difficult for people to understand. 

What impact will the switch from home-schooling to on-campus learning have on new students?

The move from home learning at A-level (or equivalent) to in-person learning at university will be a big shift. The risk at the moment is that there’s so much uncertainty, meaning there’s no example for undergraduates to follow. This could lead to unhelpful behaviours like not turning up to lectures because they don’t know how to do things. 

The Covid-safe systems on campus aren’t well known and this confusion could add to students’ apprehensions when trying to settle in. What’s important to remember is that there are plenty of years to level things out if you don’t get it right first time.

What to do if someone is struggling with undergraduate anxiety?

The key thing is not to jump to conclusions: people have every right to be unhappy or stressed given the current situation. Even if you do see something which you think is a sign of a mental health concern, it doesn’t mean you have the right to insert yourself into their situation – often that can make things worse. Try to engage with the person if they seem distant, or speak to their friends, family or lecturers if you notice a pronounced change in behaviour. Most importantly, be mindful of their privacy.

Even if you do see something which you think is a sign of a mental health concern, it doesn’t mean you have the right to insert yourself into their situation – often that can make things worse. Try to engage with the person if they seem distant, or speak to their friends, family or lecturers if you notice a pronounced change in behaviour.

A final note…

There are lots of concerns over young peoples’ mental health right now.  It’s not something which has been ignored. Most universities will have mental health support on campus, so look them up and use them if you need to. There will be professionals onsite and resources to help – don’t feel like you have to deal with this yourself!

  • Dr Dean Burnett is a doctor of neuroscience and a lecturer. He is the author of ‘The Idiot Brain’, ‘The Happy Brain’, ‘Psycho-Logical’ and ‘Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It’. He also writes regular articles and blogs, alongside work as a podcaster, pundit, science communicator and comedian.

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