A year from the start of lockdowns, Victorian students still struggling with mental health

Students had to adapt how they learned and coped with stress. Picture by Kayla Willson
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Evidence shows the ongoing impact of pandemic lockdowns on the mental health of young people. Kayla Willson reports.

Twelve months on from the first lockdown and Victorian students are still struggling with the impact Covid-19 lockdowns had on their mental health.

Students said lockdowns and online learning left many with inadequate support to deal with their feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and social isolation.

Former VCE student Morgan Dickins said students were still feeling the effect of the lockdowns despite the transition to some on-campus learning.

“You can’t fix a burning building; you can only put the fire out,” Ms Dickins said.

About one in five students have changed their 2020 studies directly because of Covid-19, an ABS survey in February found. Some students felt online learning had increased their workload and often found it difficult to avoid distractions and stay motivated while learning from home.

Ms Dickins said the pandemic had inevitably led to a change in desired courses or pathways, though she was initially confident that she could meet class expectations before Covid-19.

“Some of my classes took a lot of work, but I knew what I was doing,” she said.

By the end of it, I just had no motivation for my subjects.

Learning from home also highlighted social disparities that affected student access and engagement to online education, with teachers concerned about re-engagement, student welfare and an increased “gap between high and low-performing students”.

Headspace said 74 per cent of respondents to an August 2020 survey reported a decline in their mental health since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, while 65 per cent said the pandemic had negatively affected their studies.

Swinburne Centre For Mental Health researcher Dr Eric Tan said the pandemic completely compounded the amount of stress experienced by students.

“Students’ mental health issues were three to four times more elevated compared to previous years,” Dr Tan said.

Levels of depression, anxiety and stress were rising quite high, even just in April.

Dr Tan said that the constant news updates, at the height of the pandemic in Victoria, created more feelings of stress and anxiety.

“All of us got bombarded by news that was, especially at the very start, primarily negative.”

For Ms Dickins, social media platforms provided a lighter take on the situation and made the pandemic a little easier to get through.

“It’s not as intense as hearing it on the news and hearing that you can’t do this and that,” she said.

“It helped me with the idea that there’s other people in the state going through this with me.”

A year from the start of lockdowns, Victorian students still struggling with mental health
Incidences of mental distress in young people were comparably higher than previous years.

In May 2020, the United Nations advocated for increased availability of adequate mental health support during the pandemic to “strengthen social cohesion and reduce loneliness”.

The policy brief also recommended capitalising on the momentum generated by Covid-19 to invest in mental health services to aid post-pandemic recovery.

The Victorian Government responded, investing millions into mental health services during 2020, with specific funds allocated to youth services Kids Helpline and Orygen Youth Health.

An additional $28.5 million was committed to bolstering services for students struggling with their mental health and who had disengaged from their education.

While online counselling and self-help interventions were widely used during the pandemic, the effectiveness of these services varied considerably.

Ms Dickins said she felt Victorian schools failed to implement effective student mental health services and found that phone calls and online mediums lacked the human interaction necessary for adequate care.

 “There wasn’t much communication offered other than just a message, and it’s so easy to just lie,” she said. “I couldn’t see [the counsellor’s] expression, and she couldn’t see how I was reacting to things.”

 The Commission for Children and Young People released a snapshot of the Covid-19 impact on youth mental health in 2020, with predominantly negative results. While some students adapted to the telehealth and online services, there were significantly more who struggled or avoided the services altogether.

The Victorian Government’s 2020/2021 budget allocated further funds to help support mental health.