Published: 15 January 2021
Dr Benjamin Ajibade is the Senior Lecturer and Programme Manager for undergraduate Nursing courses at the University of Sunderland in London.
In this article, he discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of students on traditional, practical nursing courses.
“Although COVID-19 was identified in late 2019, it’s important to keep in mind that, for much of the world, the UK included, it didn’t enter the public awareness until early 2020.
By this time, coronavirus had managed to spread across the globe having a devastating impact on lives, livelihoods and global economies.
One sector of society affected greatly has been, of course, education.
Students of all ages, from primary school to doctorate level, have found the way they learn changed, with the sudden move to online study.
As the Programme Leader for the University of Sunderland in London’s undergraduate Nursing courses, I spent much of the last year thinking about and finding new ways to adapt our education to fit these new circumstances.
I’ve also, naturally, been drawn to understand the impact on our students’ mental health.
In many ways, nursing students are at risk of being among the most impacted of any student group.
At the time of writing the UK is in its third lockdown since March 2020 and most university activities have returned to online only.
The exception is for so-called ‘practical courses’ aimed at students learning skills that would allow them to work in essential fields.
Traditional nursing, along with the rest of the medical profession is within that category.
It’s important to stress though this does not include any courses taught at the University of Sunderland in London.
That is thanks to our focus on the teaching of healthcare management – aimed at giving our students the tools they would need to enter higher-level roles in the medical profession.
But with many of our students having worked in, or currently still working in, the field, the impact on their mental health is something we should all be aware of.
In traditional, practical nursing courses, students need to undertake around 2,300 hours of practice to be registered with the industry regulator, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).
In 2020, the NMC developed emergency standards which let final year students to work in the NHS up to six months before they finished their degrees.
That allowed medical professionals into the industry at a time when it was needed the most.
But with the easing of restrictions and the rapidly changing environment of tier systems and rule changes, staying on top of what was and was not allowed became difficult.
It’s unsurprising, I argue, that this led to a wide variety of impacts on the mental health of students.
Throughout the world, the feeling that was most reported in society was a ‘fear of the unknown’.
Anxiety around what will happen and the inability to plan ahead led to most people being on edge for a large amount of the time.
This situation was especially noticeable for nursing students who at any moment could be asked to join the frontlines of support and care.
Other mental health issues nursing students on practical courses experienced included isolation, insomnia (or the inability to sleep), agitation, depression and increased drugs and alcohol abuse.
Loss of income due to the closing down of many public-facing sectors of society and pre-existing mental health issues increased the pressures on many as well.
Although much of what I have said above is difficult reading, I think it’s important to end on a note of some hope.
We are not, in many ways, in the same situation we were in during the first lockdown in March 2020.
For one thing, we have several vaccines becoming increasingly available – something not even close to being thought about a year ago.
Another factor is that we are more experienced this time. We are now in a world that has become used to the restrictions of COVID-19.
Universities across the globe, including the University of Sunderland in London, have adapted rapidly to the challenges of distanced learning.
We’ve developed new tools, undertaken training and grown our mental health response to face these problems head-on.
Together, with the extraordinary hard work of our students, we will come through this as a community, perhaps stronger than ever.”
If you would like to find out more about Dr Ajibade and his research, visit his profile page.
You can learn about the courses he teaches in our Nursing and Health programmes.
If you’re having a difficult time during COVID-19 and would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, you can book an appointment to speak with our Health and Wellbeing team.