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How COVID-19 has caused a ‘shadow pandemic’ among Western Sydney University students

Lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted the lives of Australian youth, affecting mental health and resulting in what is being referred to as a ‘shadow pandemic’.  An article by PWC, states, “young Australians aged 16-34 are at the greatest risk of loneliness, with 40% reportedly feeling isolated and alone during the pandemic”.

In this article, we look at the mental health implications of students studying at Western Sydney University(WSU), across four different facets of their lives – screen time, face to face interaction, sleep patterns and financial security were investigated.

The data was collected from 59 Western Sydney University design students, over one week in 2021, with activities recorded every half hour. The data was then compared to 59 Western Sydney University design students from 2019, to determine how behaviour has changed during the lockdowns.

  1. Screen time

With the harsh lockdowns in NSW, students have been home from mid-June until October 2021. Social activities such as attending university, socialising with friends, shopping and even exercising were confined to screens.

In an article by McCrindle Research, it was found that “more than four in five students (82%) agreeing that they struggle with spending too much time on screens and technology, and they are seeing the negative impacts in their daily life”.

This is reflected in the screen time usage by students in WSU, who spend on average 9.9 hours a day across 6 devices, compared to 7.3 hours a day in 2019. According to the University of Queensland recent study, the negative impacts of increased screen time include “depression, obesity, poor quality of life, unhealthy diet and decreased physical and cognitive abilities”.

Average Hours a Day on Screen Devices

  1. Face to Face Interaction

Face to face interaction has reduced drastically between 62 minutes a day in 2019 to 11 minutes a day in 2020.

Average Minutes a Day Face to Face Interaction

 

This lack of face-to-face interaction can have several implications. According to the PTSD Journal, these include depression (feelings of severe despondency), poor self-esteem (being critical about yourself or focussing on the negatives) , loss of reality (unsure what is real or what you might have imagined to be real), reduced resilience (more likely to feel like the victim or be overwhelmed) and decreased empathy (reduced ability to see something from someone else’s perspective). If anyone feels like they are experiencing these symptoms please ask for help. The University has a number of internal wellbeing resources available at the university, which includes counselling support, as well as a number of resources available through external providers which covers areas from free legal advice to financial support.

  1. Sleep Patterns

As evident in the below graph, you can see a number of naps are conducted during the course of the day, this is evidenced by the yellow lines. This indicates that sleep has become more irregular. According to Mind Org, those with poor mental health are likely to sleep more often. Therefore, the increased amount of naps could potentially indicate deteriorating mental health of design students.

Sleep Patterns Across 7 Days

According to a study by the Sydney Morning Herald, “[of over] 2000 responses, 46 per cent are sleeping poorly during the pandemic, compared with 25 per cent before it, and 41 per cent are waking during the night three or more times a week, a symptom of insomnia…” the causes of sleep disruption included general pandemic stress, anxiety, job changes and financial distress.”

So what is the effect of a regular sleep pattern? According, to  Very well Mind Journal, this lack of sleep can cause stress, depression and anxiety.

  1. Financial Security

Students attending Western Sydney University tend to reside in the Greater Western Sydney region, which typically, has less affluence than the CBD, North Shore or Eastern suburbs in Sydney. This is evidenced by a study conducted by the NSW Council of Social Service, that states higher rates of economic disadvantage are evident in the Western Sydney region. This may be one of the reasons that 46% of the cohort were in paid employment during 2021. Therefore, the drop in 8% in paid employment and 4 hours a week worked between 2019 and 2021, may have led to further mental anguish for students already dealing with the financial pressure of attending university.