New Study Focuses on Student Stress and Mental Health During COVID-19 Pandemic

Mahtab Jafari

For the past 18 months, most academic institutions have focused their COVID-19 efforts toward helping protect students against infection and providing medical care for those who have been infected by the coronavirus.

University of California, Irvine’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences Mahtab Jafari, PharmD, is no stranger to developing best practices for student health.

A leading expert in improving human health span and adding healthy years to human life, Jafari is also the director of the UCI Center for Healthspan Sciences. Throughout her academic career, Jafari has always been interested in educational research with a focus on developing new courses, workshops and programs to improve students emotional and physical wellbeing.

The pandemic’s toll on mental health has especially impacted students, particularly those already facing financial and practical barriers to mental health treatment, such as low-income students and students who lack a safe place in which to quarantine. In a recent survey of UCI and University of California, Los Angeles students, 87 percent of students expressed that the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health.

To address these issues, Jafari recently conducted a survey study published in the Journal of American College Health, to learn about the mental health of students, the tools they use to cope with stress and their perceptions toward assistance they receive from their academic institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jafari said: “In our work, we learned a few things from our students to not only be more prepared should another epidemic or pandemic take place but also to help our students now.”

There is also a strong body of evidence linking mental health with academic success.

“In my mind, a student who has mental health concerns will not be a successful student; academically and personally,” Jafari said.

A multi-disciplinary team of UCI researchers, including Jafari, Monica De Roche and Matin Ryan Eshaghi, found a few key discoveries in their analysis of more than 590 student responses shared anonymously:

  • Students want to be involved in decision making processes that would directly impact their lives. They want university administrators to include them in conversations and dialogues so that they can be active agents in the development of ideas and solutions. The most efficient way to learn about our students’ needs is to get them involved in making decisions that impact them.
  • Students want us to communicate with them and not to them.
  • Students stressed the intersection of mental health, financial support, and academics and the various ways in which these needs overlap to create and exacerbate hardships.

Following the survey and study results, Jafari said that in addition to getting students involved in decision making, academic institutions should look to develop technology, programs, and services to address the poor mental health pandemic.

Jafari, who has taught the Life101: Mental and Physical Self Care course to more than 1,600 students during the pandemic, said: “I believe that once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, at the end of the tunnel, the light will represent less COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations but there will also be a fog representing a pandemic of poor mental health.”

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