Surveys Highlight COVID-19 Impact on Student Mental Health

New research has indicated that many university students in Japan face mental health issues stemming from long periods of lockdown and social distancing to contain the COVID-19 virus, with 60% of student respondents saying they are unhappy at university and face an uncertain future because of an economic downturn due to lockdowns.

Data published in March by the National Federation of University Co-operative Associations indicated that economic concerns from the loss of part-time jobs have affected more than 60% of university students.

The federation’s surveys, conducted during October and November 2020 under the title ‘Campus Life’, revealed a drop of over 20% in student incomes in 2020, which experts contend has had dramatic consequences for young people.

The majority of part-time jobs are in restaurants and in the events industry, which have laid off students to cope with a decline in business from lockdowns and emergency regulations that limited opening hours.

The federation data showed this has contributed to rising angst and despair among students. For example, more than 60% of first-year undergraduate students reported they were not happy at their universities – the highest percentage since 1983 who have expressed this. Students said a lack of friends due to the switch to online classes was most difficult to cope with, followed by feelings of hopelessness about the future.

Poorer job prospects for graduates

A lack of job offers for university graduates recorded this March has also raised the need to boost mental health. A 28% drop in job offers overall is expected in March 2022 when the fiscal year ends, according to the Recruit Research Institute, a major hiring company.

Employment opportunities grew only in the telecommunications sector. Rural areas are the worst affected – only 59% of students at universities in western Japan were hired.

The dramatic drop, from an average of 90% of new graduates hired before the pandemic, is shocking for young people, said Koki Ozora, a student at Keio University who launched a counselling service in 2020 to help desperate students. The service matches students with counsellors and provides 24-hour chat services through the year.

“Students don’t have anyone to turn to for help when they feel low,” he told University World News.

Ozora believes last year’s surge in students seeking counselling stems from mental struggles they already faced. The pandemic simply exposed issues such as the lack of help for child abuse and domestic violence in families in Japan, he said.

Loneliness and feeling alone and unwanted in Japanese society are the biggest reason for students to seek counselling, he said. Feelings of hopelessness can lead to serious mental health problems like depression and suicidal thoughts during the lockdowns when universities closed campuses and started online teaching.

Unable to meet friends or professors, loneliness increased among students who had no one to talk to about the obstacles they faced in studying online, such as not being able to cope with report writing. “They just don’t have anyone to turn to for guidance and that situation over months caused lack of confidence and a feeling of having no future,” Ozora said.

Lack of mental health services at universities

Researchers said the COVID-19 crisis showed that mental health services are mostly unavailable at institutions. “The pandemic is causing serious consequences in the higher education sector in Japan,” said Hirokazu Ouchi, a professor in the education faculty at Chukyo University, whose research focuses on poverty among university students.

“Both students and universities are impacted and the situation calls for a sweeping review of the current higher education system.”

Ouchi said that last year during the pandemic, universities finally took major steps to improve online teaching methods and brought in safety measures to keep campuses running.

“The decision to boost faculty training and investment to increase online studies marked an important turn in traditional university instruction,” he said. “Instruction was, typically, physical and lacked technological innovation.”

Providing mental health services is especially difficult for smaller private universities given the lack of financial resources available. Some 80% of Japan’s 700 universities, including two-year colleges, are private.

Ouchi explained that food banks operating in urban areas were reporting more students waiting for handouts – a new development in affluent Japan. “My exchanges with students show they are cutting back on eating to make ends meet. The situation is dire,” he said.

Depression and suicide

The rise in student poverty is linked to increased depression and suicide among young people. An analysis by public health researchers showed a rise last year in the number of young people taking their lives, potentially due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was most notable among women in their 20s.

Research by Haruka Sakamoto, assistant professor in the department of health policy and management at Keio University, showed a rise in suicides among young women during July to November 2020, when 96 suicides were registered compared to 70 in the same months in 2019. “More female students work part-time in food services, tourism and travel. There is a link between these industries that are hardest hit with lockdown measures and their deaths,” she said.

Sakamoto, whose research was published in February in the Journal of the American Medical Association on JAMA Network Open, called for government policy on suicide prevention to cover university students in order to contain this disturbing trend.

“The new waves of COVID-19 are having a long-term impact and steps must be taken to address the pressure on university students,” she warned.

An official in the higher education department at the Ministry of Education acknowledged the importance of boosting mental health services in universities. “We provided scholarships and other financial support in 2020 that reduced the pandemic-related fallout by helping students to keep studying after losing jobs and help from their parents.

“But this year, more universities must focus on supporting youth to keep up their spirits and not leave university in despair for their future,” he told University World News.

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