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There is limited research on the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on emerging adults from diverse communities, including those with disabilities, international students, and students who identify as part of the LGBTQ2AAI+ community. A purposeful sample of seven undergraduate students, between the ages of 19 and 30, at a university in British Columbia, Canada, participated in this study. In-depth narrative style interviews were conducted via Zoom. Data were analyzed thematically and from a resilience lens framework. This study demonstrates that participants experienced a diversity of challenges, and thus engaged in differing processes of adjustment. Four protective factors were identified: (1) Positive relationships; (2) Perceived efficacy; (3) Purpose and ambition; and (4) Sense of normality. This study contributes towards the limited research base, and thus offers valuable insights, which can inform university policy makers, university administration, and public health policy makers to be better positioned to develop innovative adaptions of services and/or delivery. Keywords emerging adulthood, COVID-19 pandemic, mental health, resilience, social isolation, protective factors, vulnerable populations and mandating physical distancing, and the experiences of Introduction social isolation. Studies indicate that social isolation The COVID-19 pandemic (henceforth referred to as pan- increases the risk of developing mental health disorders, demic) has affected the mental health of populations to vary- such as anxiety and depression (Jackson et al., 2017; Sani ing extents. Emerging adults have, however, been singled out et al., 2020). In particular, perceived loneliness, and a lack of as being at a higher risk for distress related to the pandemic positive connections to family and friends are associated (Hamza et al., 2020). with a higher risk of suicidal ideation (Jackson et al., 2017; Existing research highlights that globally, the negative Sani et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2017). This speaks to the affects on post-secondary students from the pandemic, is importance of monitoring students’ functional social engage- unprecedented; the impact this has on people psychologi- ment and positive social networks with university support cally has been predicted to outlast the pandemic (Hamza services. This can, therefore, provide opportunities to assess et al., 2020). Best et al., (2020) found that the pandemic and potentially prevent an increase in student’s mental health related social distancing is directly related to experiencing concerns (Hefner & Eisenberg, 2009). psychological distress. Although reducing the spread of the It is important to underscore the life-course perspective of virus through social restrictions is a crucial and essential the study population. This study sample comprises of univer- approach, these practices however, place a large toll on the sity students, aged 19–23, which from a life-course perspec- psychosocial aspects of people’s lives (Milman et al., 2020). tive can be identified as emerging adults (Wood et al., 2018). A study conducted by Moores and Lucas (2020) found that fear towards the virus was expressed in psychological dis- tress and correlated with stressors concerned with finances, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada them or their loved ones contracting the virus, as well as the Corresponding Author: state of the government and economy. Celeste Duff, Independent Researcher, University of Victoria, V8P 5C2, One of the main challenges we observe during this pan- Victoria, V8P 5C2, Canada. demic is managing and living with regulations concerning Email: email@example.com Creative Commons CC BY: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage). 2 SAGE Open Typically, emerging adulthood can be abundant with oppor- and public health policy makers will be better positioned to tunity, choice, and exploration, however also involving develop innovative adaptions of services and/or delivery, and increased responsibility and challenges with educational and able to match access to services needs. There is limited social progression (Wood et al., 2018). The increase of research that captures university student’s voices in times of a responsibility and independence, in addition to the multifac- pandemic. This study addresses the research gap of capturing eted social interactions and relationships, typically leads to student’s unique voices in times of a pandemic, and contrib- the development of higher-level abilities, particularly execu- utes to the process of creating mental health safeguards for tive functioning (Wood et al., 2018). As a result of the cur- heterogeneous populations in the future (Hamza et al., 2020). rent pandemic, this life trajectory for emerging adults has been disrupted, and to an extent immobilized. To this end, Methods the risk and impact of psychological distress among emerg- ing adults, particularly those from diverse communities, can- This study was started at a large, public university on the not be understated in times of a pandemic (Hamza et al., west coast of Canada in May of 2020. The aim of this study 2020). was to explore the resilience and mental health experiences of emerging adults during the pandemic. Data was gathered from seven undergraduate students, who are from diverse Guiding Theoretical Framework communities. The theoretical underpinning, and in part the aim throughout This qualitative study was guided by interpretive phe- this study, is the significance of resilience and how resilience nomenology. In this case, interpretive phenomenology facili- can apply to students impacted by a global pandemic. The tated a deeper understanding of student’s mental health and second phase of analysis in this study thus applied a resil- resilience experiences, as well as highlighted environmental ience lens (Masten, 2007; Sapienza & Masten, 2011). As dis- contexts in which their experiences are embedded cussed below, resilience theory encompasses a protective/ (Polkinghorne, 1989; Van Manen, 1984). This methodologi- risk factors model; the findings from this study are thus pre- cal stance, therefore, assumed that subjective experiences are sented in alignment to this model. intertwined with the socio-cultural and political location of a Resilience is understood as a process of adjustment that person (Lopaz & Willis, 2004). Our overarching research involves the capacity to overcome trauma or tragedy and questions were: (1) What are the mental health impacts of subsequently achieve a positive developmental outcome COVID-19 and the unique experiences of undergraduate stu- (Masten, 2007). Masten et al. (2008) argue that resilience dents? (2) What are the implications/responsibility for the involves a system of positively adapting during the time of or university? after a significant disturbance; resilience can, therefore, not be described as a trait. Everyone has the ability to achieve Recruitment and Participants resilience as it can be achieved through skill development as well as through adding strength to protective factors and This study was carried out with enrolled students of under- lowering the significance of risk factors (Masten, 2007). graduate studies at the designated university who are Resilience theory can be applied to understanding risks, between the ages of 19 and 30. Potential participants were such as pandemic behavior on the mental health of students, informed about this study and its purpose through recruit- protective factors, as well as mediating the impact of risks. ment posters circulating through social media and via word Existing research reinforces that exploring diverse fields of of mouth. Posters were further disseminated through facul- study with the use of resilience theory is an effective lens ties and student unions. The poster informed participants of (Masten, 2007). For instance, examining major disasters and how to contact the researchers to set up an initial phone call trauma, the role schools play in student’s recoveries from and discuss eligibility. There were 26 students who applied traumatic events, and the reopening of schools representing to participate. We anticipated making a meaningful selec- normalization and recovery (Masten et al., 2008). By apply- tion of 6–10 students to gain an understanding of how spe- ing a resilience lens as a framework for this study, this facili- cific groups were being affected by the pandemic (rural, tated an exploration of trauma and how it can affect non-rural, LGBTQ2SIA+, international students). Seeing students. as this is a preliminary study we expect to expand in the Further, our study hopes to understand the impacts of future there was, therefore, a need for base data to inform Rapid System Transformations. Specifically, how the pan- further studies. Seven participants were selected and invited demic university interventions supported and promoted stu- to take part in a 1-2 hour virtual Zoom interview. Following dent’s mental health, and if or how these supports were the interview, participants were invited back for a follow-up experienced by the students. session, during which they had the opportunity to verify the To this end, we believe by better understanding the unique information provided, and thus endorse the themes. This needs of heterogeneous populations, university administration final stage of participant involvement ensured credibility of Roberts et al. 3 Table 1. Demographics of Participants. questions and capture the voices of a diverse participant pool (See Appendix A for the interview guide). The open-ended Number of interview questions were tentatively posed as follows: “Tell Characteristic participants me about your experiences with unique stressors and chal- Age 19 2 lenges that could worsen mental health for you as a student 20 2 with/without disabilities during COVID-19”; “Tell me about 22 2 a time during the COVID-19 lock down that you felt impacted 23 1 your mental health?”; “Tell me about a time you experienced Gender Female 4 loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic?”; “Tell me Male 3 about your experience as a student identifying as. . .. during LGBTQ2SIA+ 2 COVID-19?”; “Tell me about your experiences with social Diagnosed medical condition 2 isolation during COVID-19?” Important follow-up questions Disability 2 included: “What recommendations do you have for the Residency status Local 3 University?”; “What recommendations do you have for the National 3 medical system?” International 1 Analysis the data collected. A purposeful sample of seven participants The analysis consisted of two stages. Initially, the findings was recruited. There was no compensation offered to par- were analyzed thematically. The generated themes were then ticipants. The Research Ethics Board reviewed our applica- analyzed from a resilience lens (Masten, 2007). tion according to University policies and the national Pertaining to the thematic analysis, in order to examine research ethics policy the Tri-Council Policy statement: and structure the data, as well as to develop coding categories, Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS2). this occurred in accordance with Bogdan and Biklen’s (2003) Approved 2020. coding approach. The first step involved the research spend- This sample comprised of students from diverse commu- ing time away from the data to address biases and assump- nities, who have likely faced stigma and social isolation prior tions, which was documented in a field journal. The second to the pandemic. Participants included those who identify as step required a thorough examination of the data for specific LGBTQ2SIA+, international students, students from rural phrases, words, concepts, patterns, ways of thinking, and spe- areas versus urban settings, and students with disabilities. cific behaviors or actions expressed. Six coding themes Table 1 provides an overview of the demographics of the par- developed by Bogdan and Biklen’s (2003) were used, as well ticipants. These identity categories were sampled as there is as the researchers defined coding units. Categories were mod- limited research that captures the unique voices and insights ified and added throughout the analysis process, as well as of students impacted by the pandemic, who are from diverse broken into smaller coding themes and sub-themes. Overall, communities (Campbell et al., 2009; Hamza et al., 2020). It themes were only considered if they emerged in at least two is anticipated that our study can empower and encourage thirds of the interviews to indicate a trend within the data col- space for further unique and diverse voices to learn from. lection sample. Lastly, to ensure validity, the themes were Recognizing and providing a voice to persisting structural reviewed and discussed with the principal investigator, and inequalities, as it becomes crucially apparent and impactful final changes and edits were made on an ongoing basis. during a pandemic cannot be understated (Bowleg, 2020; Lokot & Avakayan, 2020). Ethical Considerations Interviews Ethical approval from the University Health Research Authority was obtained. Confidentiality and data protection Derived from interpretive phenomenology, narrative inter- procedures were applied as standard procedures. These mea- views were conducted via Zoom on Vancouver Island, sures ensured that all voice files, as well as transcriptions Canada. This approach to interviewing facilitated a holistic were renamed and pseudonyms were used. Only the research- lens and thus captured participant’s experiences that were ers had access to the original data set. All transcriptions and focused on psychological insights; specifically, how partici- voice files were securely stored on their computers. Informed pants organize their understandings of experiences as stories consent was obtained prior to the initial interviews. Further, (Kelly, 2010; Polkinghorne, 1989; Van Manen, 1984). reflexivity was upheld in this study. Reflexivity ensured that Through the review of literature and gaps within the exist- the researchers reflected on assumptions, personal beliefs, ing research, we created questions that we believed previous and power relationships, which may influence the manner in relevant research had not answered. Additionally, we chose which the research was conducted. questions that we believed would best answer our research 4 SAGE Open Results Positive Relationships Caring adults. All seven participants reported that going Essential Structure of the Experience home at the start of the pandemic felt like a relief. This expe- Given that participants are from diverse communities, and rience was described as comforting as well as providing a contending with a sudden and abrupt change in their lives, sense of safety for them. They showed a humble apprecia- which demanded the adaptation of a new reality, their experi- tion, and expressed gratitude for having a comfortable place ences of adversity, identity, and marginality were varied. to stay. Often the opportunity in its self to return home, cre- These findings illuminate their mental health and circum- ated a perceived sense of loving care, support, stability, and stantial specific challenges, how they chose to address those connectedness. Harid explained, challenges, and the key protective factors that were influen- tial in navigating and persevering during those complex I was really lucky to have a family home that I could escape to, experiences. Four protective factors emerged from the find- and eat their food and live under their roof, all my necessities ings: (1) Positive relationships; (2) Perceived efficacy; (3) were taken care of which I was very thankful for. Purpose and ambition; and (4) Sense of normality. With students facing unexpected changes, ongoing uncer- The opportunity to connect with family via phone became tainty, and social isolation, it was fundamental to maintain a priority and an important, regular activity in order to offset and embrace greater attachment with their existing family the isolating circumstances and feelings of social disconnect. systems and caring and responsive adults. Having positive Consistent social interactions with caring adults, albeit on relationships with caring adults in the context of both per- the phone or online, may have also contributed to solidifying sonal and professional relationships, achieved a sense of a routine and feelings of productivity. Jimena shared, comfort and security. Given that the pandemic restrictions stunted participants’ I would call my mom and my dad, and then my friend, I’d like just like FaceTime her and talk to her during the day. typical execution of self-efficacy, participants found ways to navigate and readjust to their new norm, while remaining to exercise executive functioning and forms of mastery. By Effective Teachers and Schools way of cognitive flexibility, some participants were able to accept their situations, while others directed their focus on Having supportive, friendly, understanding, flexible, and rewarding activities, cultivated an optimistic mindset, or available professors appeared to have provided students with practiced self-compassion. Further, as the pandemic restric- an appreciation that instilled a sense of relief, confidence, tions also diminished a sense of purpose and ambition, encouragement, and trust. All seven participants acknowl- rebuilding the foundations for purposeful living, within edged that their professors were mindful and accommodat- their new reality, was a priority. Establishing goals and striv- ing toward their needs, fears, and challenges due to the ing to accomplish those goals, in addition to developing pandemic. However, some participants experienced a lack of consistent structure and routines were all strategies that communication, guidance, and moral support, which made enhanced participants’ sense of purpose and ambition. the shift to online learning exceptionally disappointing and Participants found it demanding to comprehend the pan- challenging. demic, integrate, and make sense of their new experience. As students had varied circumstances, stressors, and work They, therefore, searched for a sense of normality by way of and study settings, having the opportunity to work and study reaching out to others, on personal and professional level, in during times that suited to their needs likely decreased poten- order to achieve a sense of relatedness, control, and accep- tial mental health challenges. Cole acknowledged, tance of their new experiences. Finally, given that this study provides a voice to those from diverse communities, who My summer Prof was really good, really accommodating to what already face stigma and social isolation prior to the pan- people’s concerns are. They allowed students to go through on demic, the unique themes depict participants’ experiences their own pace. We don’t have constant zoom time. pertaining to their particular circumstances. For some, their experiences involved disclosing their sexual identity with Prior to full transitioning of online learning, five partici- family members, whereas others experienced concerns sur- pants explained that their professors prepared them and rounding safety and security of residency. To this end, these openly communicated about the transition to online classes. findings seek to empower diverse communities, and thus It seems having the opportunity to for students to gain a snap recognize and provide a voice to persisting structural shot of what the transition to online teaching and learning inequalities, as it becomes crucially evident and poignant can look like reassured students, and thus contributed to a during a pandemic (Bowleg, 2020; Lokot & Avakayan, smoother adjustment. In the case of some students, experi- 2020) (Figure 1). encing a positive and efficient transition to online learning Roberts et al. 5 Figure 1. Findings presented by meta themes and themes. and working alongside effective teachers likely enacted a This stark change in comparison to before the pandemic protective and strengthening influence on students’ resil- made it challenging to find motivation and progress through ience and motivation. Kennedy explained, online learning. My teachers were good at transitioning online right away. Some Really important to me is having relationships with my of them even mentioned it the week beforehand. This helped a lot professors, attending office hours, building that rapport. For my because everything was chaotic at the time. online classes, we never had any Zoom lectures or anything interactive. Only the online forum with other students is fake, not genuine connection. Students were seeking guidance and role modeling in man- aging pandemic related challenges. A lack of communication, vague communication, or disengaged teachers often created A key aspect pertaining to participants’ experiences with more anxiety and feelings of loneliness. It was apparent that their professors was the importance of ongoing and open for Brent and Jimena in particular, they experienced an conversation and sharing of information. Although online abrupt and ineffective transition to online learning. learning had been implemented, regular online communica- tion from professors, albeit reminders and updates, guided It was rushed. I was left with a feeling of incompleteness. students progression through their work, and also contrib- uted to students feeling reassured about their new mode of One of my prof’s was not helpful. She was a bit hostile, not learning. Sarah explained, helpful if I had questions. Once all classes were canceled I did get a lot of emails informing Furthermore, for Macy, online classes were poorly us with the latest updates. That did make me feel better knowing set up. This resulted in a low quality learning experience. that I was in like the loop. 6 SAGE Open for themselves. Macy shared experiences whereby she Positive Peer and Romantic Relationships engaged in online socializing, which amounted to excessive While experiencing the pandemic, and particularly lock- consumption of alcohol and topics of conversation that were down, student’s reported the importance of social connec- uncomfortable and offensive for those present. Although tions, feeling supported, and reassurance from positive peer these experiences may have been used as coping mecha- and or romantic relationships. Peers and partners enabled an nisms, socially stimulating, and created an escape from the exchange of experiences and common understandings, in pandemic restrictions, these experiences offered very little in addition to a sense of belonging and connectedness in the way of enhancing mental health. unprecedented times. All seven participants acknowledged that at times not I would have late-night calls, we would drink a lot. Some people being able to visit physically with peers caused unfamiliar were consuming nicotine, and too much weed and falling asleep feelings of anxiety and isolation in participants. However, on the camera. This became a culture of risky self-destructive when participants had the opportunity to safely engage in behavior because everyone was alone. socially distant visits with peers, these experiences eased feelings of isolation in participants. Kennedy shared, Perceived Efficacy Perceived sense of control. For all seven participants, My best friend lives two blocks away. It was pretty hard at the beginning. A couple of months in, we’d hang out, but from a attempting to comprehend and accept that they are not in distance, and it got easier. control of their situation was challenging. Often an adjust- ment period of 30–60 days was described to settle into the Harid had the opportunity to pursue a romantic relation- new norm. The sudden change in routine was a difficult and ship during the pandemic; the excitement and novelty of jarring transition for participants to cope with. Harid felt, starting a romantic relationship alleviated a lot of mental health difficulties. Having a trusting and protective relation- Like a straw broke in my mind, I was like, oh, you can’t do anything about this. This is completely out of your control. ship, whereby emotional support is present proved to be effective in building resilience to cope with the pandemic. There were, however, four participants who were deter- Right around the end of May, my social isolation experience mined to accept the new reality. Brent described the act of really changed because I actually found a partner. It cured a lot accepting their situation and circumstances as an encourag- of the depression because I had somebody else in my life who I ing experience. not only loved, but could talk about some of things that were bothering me. Don’t try to play things off is fine when they’re clearly not. Acknowledging the situation that like the minute that happens for me, I almost feel better because it feels real. I feel like I have Tensions in Existing Relationships some degree of control. I have some control over decisions and changes. It is important to note that for five of the participants, their existing relationships generated interpersonal difficulties, All seven participants expressed an urgency to find a which worsened pandemic related mental health challenges, sense of control by finding a new routine and structure in such as anxiety or depressive symptomology. Some partici- their lives. Accepting what was out of their control and pants reported that living with people who followed the embracing aspects within their control proved to be a valu- social isolation protocols differently, and essentially did not able strategy. Setting goals and reaching them likely gener- recognize the pandemic to be equally as serious, caused ten- ated self-confidence, autonomy, and self-determination. For sion between peers. This tension subsequently further lim- instance, Cole implemented manageable goals in daily life ited social connection and thus exacerbated existing anxiety and created healthy routines. and mental health difficulties. Jimena and Cole shared, I’m trying to think mentally, to make sure I get my sleep, I was taking social isolation very seriously and I was living with consistency in food, diet, and exercise then try to work towards people that weren’t. That’s when the whole idea of COVID and a goal that I can control. social isolation took a toll on me. Having the opportunity and resources to safely navigate Some of my friends were taking it very seriously, some were not. the new norm, such as starting work again, enabled partici- It felt like who do I trust? pants to gain a greater insight of the protocols and restric- tions put in place. It seems this opportunity allowed Having peers and partners who indulged in risky and participants to exercise some control over their situation, destructive behaviors due to the lack of routine and options and thus feel a sense of contribution, productivity, and for socializing led to participants normalizing this behavior Roberts et al. 7 self-efficacy. Further, returning to work may have also You start to analyze all of the things that you normally do. You’re trying to do productive stuff, but I had no energy. At school you’re enacted feelings of reassurance and hope for the future. inspired by all these tremendous people who are accomplishing a Macy shared, lot, but when you’re on your own it’s hard to be inspired. When I went back to work I was no longer isolated. I think with Participants searched for sources and people to guide education and a greater understanding of the parameters of how our new world works, that I was kind of taken out of this hole them to a more confident sense of certainty in the world’s that I had allowed myself to sit in for a couple months. current state as well as future. Harid, however, expressed that the confusion and lack of leadership from governments induced feelings of turmoil, insecurity, and anxiety in Self-regulation skills students. In order to shift to a more positive focus and mindset, all seven participants spoke of consistently encouraging them- I felt like I continued to see evidence of people not trusting in science. So how can you deal with that? How do you even begin selves to stay occupied throughout the day. Although living to have that conversation with someone and how do you with restrictions, Harid and Jimena were able to be cogni- negotiate that with yourself? tively flexible and direct their attention on constructive, rewarding activities in order to keep their minds stimulated. Goal Setting I was reading a lot of short stories and magazines like the New Purposeful living involves seeking well-defined goals and Yorker and the Atlantic, just avidly keep telling myself you got to keep busy. striving to accomplish those goals. For all seven participants, having goals associated with their tasks at university I’m always occupied, I’m always doing stuff I’m always prompted goal setting, ambition, structure, and routine. studying. I’m also enjoying outside more. I will go to the lake Kennedy shared, with my partner. It was nice to have something to do not just something to fill my For Macy, Sarah, and Cole, exercising was their activity time, but something I needed to do. I guess starting at university of choice. Exercising seemed to dramatically contribute to was reassuring. mood enhancement and overall wellbeing. For Sarah, the decision to exercise was found to be so rewarding, she antici- Seeking and obtaining employment enabled participants pates engaging in exercise on a daily basis. to develop a routine. For Cole, this contributed to feelings of purpose, productivity, and stability. This effectively solidi- Immediately after getting a good workout I felt better than being fied a healthy routine and improved his mindset. locked up inside. Literally 0 to 10. I realized I really liked that feeling that’s when I decided to do it every day. Place to just work for a couple hours and get back to something productive instead of just being anxious and trying to escape from things whether it was Netflix or video games. So, I felt like Purpose and Ambition I was moving towards a common goal. Seeking purpose and certainty. The interviews demon- strated that all seven participants often described a need to find Sense of Normality purpose in their new reality. It seems that a sense of purpose for self and the new way of living was required in order to Seeking Shared Experience with Others. All seven partici- readjust, empower, motivate, and persevere. Brent, for exam- pants reported that at the beginning of lockdown, they felt ple was fortunate to secure employment. Having the opportu- unsure about most aspects of their new lives. Macy shared nity to work can strengthen self-determination, and thus aid in that strong feelings of isolation as well as separation from having a purpose during the pandemic. others restricted her from being able to normalize her experi- ences during lockdown. She felt overwhelmed by this unfa- I had job lined up at a theatre company in Vancouver. Thankfully miliar and seemingly inescapable loneliness in the beginning. it was still able to go through. I got another job at just a grocery store near where I live. I had a rough time with social isolation. Before the pandemic I never really went a day without seeing at least 10 people. The Participants who at the beginning of the pandemic fell isolation really impacted my mental health. into unhealthy habits and lacked routine started to question and scrutinize their own daily practices. Although partici- Jimena described feeling unsafe and concerned that they pants were seeking purpose, motivation, and stability, Harid would catch the virus. This fear was compounded by not expressed feeling anxious and lacking purpose. having clear time lines for when the pandemic would end. 8 SAGE Open I was feeling very overwhelmed with the possibility of getting Centre for Accessible Learning (CAL) registered students COVID. I was anxious and with the uncertainty because life will have experienced a different online learning experience and not come back to normal until we have the vaccine. approach during the pandemic. This has involved a discon- nected, hands-off approach. The lack of resources and adap- The new and unexpected experiences in which partici- tations to an online learning environment has affected the pants found themselves were difficult to adapt to initially. CAL registered participants negatively as they do not have Brent shared that not having previous experience or exten- access to resources to perform their best. Macy and Cole sive knowledge of pandemics raised his anxiety and sus- anticipated more support with software access, navigating tained feelings of restlessness. the new online system, as well as having greater consistency in communication from the CAL. I’d never had two jobs before, and I’ve never been in a pandemic before. The feeling of sort of constantly being overwhelmed and There could have been more for students with disabilities, like feeling like there’s something that you need to do that you’re not offering courses about how to study, the library, how to take doing. With time that’s definitely subsided. tests at home. Students’ school year ending abruptly left them feeling It was an email saying your accommodations are mostly online, unfinished in their experience, an experience, which is inher- so we don’t have that dedicated space for you to come test. You ently joyous and celebrated. Dealing with the sudden and don’t have that dedicated space at your house. unexpected change of the pandemic and restrictions prompted participants to seek a shared experience with others. Kennedy Kennedy had a coming out experience. Their family reacted explained that this loss and desire of relatedness added to the adversely, which resulted in the participant feeling trapped and unfamiliar feeling of isolation. uncomfortable. The lack of social supports due to lockdown exacerbated these feelings and caused greater distress. The fact that I couldn’t like see my friends and celebrate the end of school, that was difficult because it was a whole year and then In April I came out to my family. It was difficult because I was it was just done. And then I was at home all day, and then I stuck in my house all day. I couldn’t leave, or couldn’t see my couldn’t go out and see anyone or do anything else. friends. I didn’t want to be here all the time, but I had to. Sarah and Brent experienced heightened feelings of anxi- ety and depression due to learned distractors and learned Seeking Professional Support for Reassurance coping skills not being available to them available during the Sarah, Cole, and Macy experienced a substantial decrease in transition period. This finding illustrates how students with their mental health. Many described feelings of depression mental health conditions can experience an amplified experi- and anxiety. Some participants had irrational feelings towards ence of their symptoms. the effects the pandemic would have on their social and romantic relationships and in turn reacted in a way that Claustrophobic and then panic. I felt so anxious thinking maybe caused damage in these relationships. These symptoms of not go to the washroom because what if the virus is in the negative mental health persisted in some participants causing washroom. It was paranoid and anxious. them to seek professional support. The findings illustrated that participants gained a sense of hopefulness, reassurance, Excessive worrying for Jimena, Sarah, and Harid was also and normality, in circumstances that were trying and expressed. Seeking answers on the current state of the situa- turbulent. tion was a common reaction. However, the overloading of information, opinions, and statistics induced heightened lev- I decided to go to our family doctor. That’s when I got diagnosed els of anxiety, panic, and worrying. with a generalized anxiety disorder. This helped explain why I was so anxious about the virus. I’d sit down and I could feel my heart beating fast, and then I’d have all these thoughts in my head. Watching the news, especially I find going to the counselor really valuable. It’s good just to talk would really stress me out. I convinced myself that I shouldn’t to someone on the side and not just with my family or friends. leave, stay in here to be safe because otherwise I’m going to get the virus. This study comprises of a diverse sample of students. Therefore, students from these areas of diversity or margin- For Jimena, an international student, existential fears ality had unique experiences relating to their particular cir- appeared to be more prevalent. For those who lack the safety cumstances. The following findings describe other unique and security of residency, financial support, and physical dis- circumstances and experiences that impacted students’ expe- tance to family members, their fears associated with isolation riences of the pandemic. and lack of belonging can become amplified. Roberts et al. 9 I am an international student. I’m in the process of changing my experienced a distinctive range of challenges, and thus visa to postgraduate work permit. I feel overwhelmed with the engaged in differing processes of adjustment to address those emotional toll of having so much family back home. challenges. Aligned to resilience theory, the processes of adjustment that participants engaged in can be identified as Macy, for instance, reported that due to the lack of coping key protective factors (Masten, 2007). Protective factors skills, and the lack of control and structure she resorted to enabled participants to navigate and persevere through their self-medicating. We found that 57% of students reported complex and challenging experiences. Four protective fac- using an aspect of self-medication. tors were identified: (1) Positive relationships; (2) Perceived efficacy; (3) Purpose and ambition; and (4) Sense of The dependence I had on these nightly activities, because they normality. were my only source of interaction with people. I use the analogy For all the participants, feeling helpless and vulnerable of being in a hole. Then the substance abuse was really just was prevalent; therefore, the social, emotional, and resource taking like shovels of gravel and like filling the hole. related support from caring adults contributed to a positive adjustment in the difficult circumstances. Although the pan- demic made it difficult in terms of the life course perspective Recommendations for Schools to participate and engage in socially defined roles, the find- As part of the data collection process, participants were ings conveyed protective outcomes (Wood et al., 2018). explicitly asked in the interviews if they had any recommen- These protective outcomes included relatedness, reassur- dations for schools. Data that reflected consistent themes ance, a sense of belonging, and a decrease in feelings of lone- concerning school processes during the pandemic and the liness and isolation. These findings thus highlight the respective recommendations were captured across the inter- importance of exercising interpersonal competence and views. The following list was created by all seven of the par- maintaining existing positive peer and romantic relationships ticipants who reviewed the experiences and insights on to contribute to emerging adulthood trajectories and to offset supports, or lack thereof, from the university. It is hoped that social isolation (Wood et al., 2018). From a life course per- the findings in this study and recommendations that follow spective, emerging adulthood is typically an explorative time contribute to the process of creating mental health safeguards for exercising agency and developing higher-level abilities, for emerging adults, in the future. however, the decision for emerging adults to return home during a pandemic emphasizes the vulnerability that partici- (1) Create an ongoing and open flow of information pants felt (Wood et al., 2018). The protective factors of car- between professors and students during online class ing adults also underscores how these emerging adults chose to keep feeling of engagement for students to deviate from a typical emerging adult life course as a (2) Create an ongoing and open flow of information means to alleviate the risk factors of their current situation between school and students about the future (Sapienza & Masten, 2011; Wood et al., 2018). (3) Have professors be more accessible in an online Our study has found that having open communication environment to compensate for the missed connec- between schools and students as well as professors and stu- tion in person dents was highly valuable for participants during the transi- (4) Make mental health resources more functional in an tion to online learning. This eased feelings of worry and online school environment angst and thus facilitated a more conducive learning experi- (5) Promote and normalize the use of online mental ence for students. Not all participants had effective and effi- health resources for students cient transitions to online learning. The lack of reassurance, (6) Create awareness of the common mental health rapport, and role modeling from some professors added to effects COVID has on students the complexities of navigating online learning, and hindered (7) Adapt CAL to be more online friendly and engag- self-determination. Aligned to the life course perspective of ing for registered students emerging adulthood, the obstacles to progress educationally, (8) Communicate adaptions and suggestions for stu- and the resulting decrease in the essential abilities associated dents who are studying in non-typical environments with emerging adulthood, further exacerbated participants (9) Lectures and content being shared inclusively for dif- current reality and challenges to remain on an emerging adult ferent time zoned students (i.e., recorded and posted) trajectory (Wood et al., 2018). (10) Improved organization of online classroom Previous research speaks to the strengthening and resil- ience outcomes in which positive and effective schools and teachers can have on students (Masten et al., 2008). In the Discussion case of some of the participants in this study, they experi- This study has explored the resilience and mental health enced positive resilience-related outcomes in the context of experiences of a diverse sample of emerging adults during high risk. For those students, this provided a protective tool, the pandemic. This study demonstrates that participants which contributed to strengthening their intrinsic motivation, 10 SAGE Open perseverance, self-efficacy, and indeed develop their resil- health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on emerging ience (Masten et al., 2008). adults from diverse communities, including those with dis- In order to exercise a sense of control and self-efficacy abilities, international students, and students who identify as over their situations, some participants were able to be cog- part of the LGBTQ2AAI+ community. nitively flexible. This created a pathway for participants to There are limitations for this study, which are also worth accept their new reality, adopt a hopeful mindset, and imple- highlighting. This study used a small sample size and can ment manageable goals. When considering the life course therefore not provide results that can be generalized. This perspective of emerging adulthood, for participants who study thus does not claim to offer generalizable findings to were able to practice some degree of agency over their situa- all students in Canadian universities. Further, this study was tion, this was likely very fulfilling and helped offset the dif- conducted virtually, which may have impacted the interview ficulties in maintaining an emerging adult trajectory (Wood process, the comfort of the participants, and the interpersonal et al., 2018). Furthermore, aligned to resilience theory, for richness of the data collected. participants who exercised self-efficacy and cognitive flexi- bility, this served as a key protective factor and contributed Declaration of Conflicting Interests to strengthening their resilience (Masten et al., 2008). The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect Participants found that creating healthy habits such as to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. exercise, employment, and daily routines decreased their feelings of anxiety and lacking purpose. Professional sup- Funding port was also sought; this experience provided mentorship, The author(s) received no financial support for the research, author- promoted a sense of hopefulness and normality, and con- ship, and/or publication of this article. sequently mediated the impact of risk (Werner, 1993). Existing research speaks to the importance of self-care, and ORCID iD having connections with others in order to enhance well- Celeste Duff https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3071-7320 being and decrease the effects of social isolation (Moore & Lucas, 2020). Similarly, the actions taken by participants to References pursue employment and implement daily routines and Bedard-Thomas, J., Gausvik, C., Wessels, J., Regan, S., Goodnow, healthy habits can also be seen as efforts to maintain and K., & Goroncy, A. (2019). I live alone but don’t feel alone: reach their goals in their current life course of emerging Social isolation and loneliness from the patient perspective. adulthood (Wood et al., 2018). Journal of Patient-Centered Research and Reviews, 6(4), 262– 266. https://doi.org/10.17294/2330-0698.1715 Best, L. A., Law, M. A., Roach, S., & Wilbiks, J. M. (2020). 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SAGE Open – SAGE
Published: Mar 19, 2022
Keywords: emerging adulthood; COVID-19 pandemic; mental health; resilience; social isolation; protective factors; vulnerable populations
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