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COVID-19, Meaning and Mental Health in Higher Education: An International Comparison

In: Journal of Empirical Theology
Authors:
Hans Schilderman Chair ‘Religion & Care’, Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen The Netherlands

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Joris Kregting Radboud University, Nijmegen University The Netherlands

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Michael Scherer-Rath Radboud University, Nijmegen University The Netherlands

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Ulrich Riegel Siegen University Siegen Germany

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Alexander Unser Dortmund University Dortmund Germany

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Open Access

Abstract

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is studied among Dutch and German university students and staff, at the inception of the pandemic in April 2020. The effects of conditions of study and work are studied on mental health, while taking into account the adaptive function of meaning and controlling for relevant demographic characteristics. Results indicate that negative experiences of study and work affect various dimensions of mental health and differ for Dutch and German university contexts. Meaning acts as a resource for mental health, especially regarding dimensions of meaningfulness and trust. Programs for university care are called for in which the insights of this study are taken into account.

1 Introduction

COVID-19 is known as a highly contagious virus that seriously affects the human respiratory system. Since it was detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, infection with the virus has grown into a worldwide pandemic at a tremendous speed from 2020 until 2022. Measures such as distance keeping, mouth masks, and lockdowns with social restrictions and work at home were introduced on a worldwide scale. By now, the COVID-19 Pandemic is considered one of the greatest global disasters of recent times, affecting the individual’s health and well-being in several aspects. A long-term impact on individual health and increase in social and health inequalities can be expected. Changes in the social and economic situation, as well as educational and occupational disadvantages of social isolation and subsequent stress and corrosion of coping abilities are also potential unwanted results (Beckfield, Bambra et al. 2015).

Also the Netherlands and Germany have been seriously affected. Both countries were early victims of and adopters to the COVID-19 situation. These countries are comparable in terms of reported overall happiness, with the Netherlands ranked 5 and Germany 7th (Helliwell 2020). In the Netherlands, 38 infections have been registered on March 4th, 2020; a number that skyrocketed to 1.135 infections on March 15th, after which the Dutch government decided to close down restaurants, bars and coffee shops, and limited travelling to the Netherlands, and the result was a total lockdown by the end of the month with 4.749 infections and 213 casualties registered due to the virus. In Germany, the first 153 COVID-19-infections were noticed in North-Rhine-Westphalia at the beginning of March 2020. A few weeks later, the number of infections was so high that the German government ordered a short lockdown with strict limitations that affected all public routines. Notwithstanding differences between the Netherlands and Germany in size and healthcare provisions, they displayed similarities in COVID-19 infection rates and government restrictions. Universities were also affected by the pandemic, all the more because young students with frequent and intensive interactions work together with older generations of university staff. Both in the Netherlands and Germany university communities were confronted with rearrangements in the implementation of their curricula, involving logistic problems and long-lasting campus lockdowns. Once re-opened, public transport to campuses was subjected to restrictive measures, all leading to limited opportunities for staff and students to meet and interact. Video lecturing has been widely implemented, turning class into a homebound affair with all of its learning disadvantages and handicaps. Organized student-life came to a stand-still and lecturers were bound to digital interactions at their homes, while family life among university staff was already burdened by the lockdown, which often amounts into stressful management of house and work commitments.

The impact of the pandemic on health has been significant and did attract much academic attention (Rigotti, De Cuyper et al. 2020, Shah, Kamrai et al. 2020). Early studies already indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures to control have strongly affected the well-being and health of those involved (Munk, Schmidt et al. 2020; Prati 2021; Quervain, Aerni et al. 2020; Veer, Riepenhausen et al. 2020). This seems to be especially the case among students, a group that already suffered from lack of wellbeing and mental health problems (Aucejo, French et al. 2020; Chaturvedi, Vishwakarma et al. 2020, Leung and Cheng 2021), while data on university staff is hardly available. Emphasis seems to have been put especially on the managerial aspects of handling the COVID-19 crisis. At universities this was simply a priority that required immediate attention and was taken care of with subsequent vigor. As a consequence the mental effects of the COVID-19 crisis among students have largely remained a second order concern. This lack of interest is remarkable since there are strong indications that students in higher education suffered serious mental health issues even long before the pandemic rose. Judging from a bibliometric mapping of literature, depression, anxiety and stress were already prevalent among the common health issues of students long before the COVID-19 crisis broke out (Hernández-Torrano, Ibrayeva et al. 2020). Burnout symptoms are rife among university students where various international reports suggest percentages ranging from 45 to 71% (Dyrbye, Thomas et al. 2008, Stoliker and Lafreniere 2015, Reyes, Davis et al. 2016, Chunming, Harrison et al. 2017). A 2020 Dutch survey among university students taken before the COVID-19 crisis demonstrated that burnout symptoms (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of personal accomplishment) among students is strongly correlated with loneliness and pressure to perform. The same research also indicates that the need for mental health treatment and actual receipt of treatment as offered by mental health services and insurance does not lead to actual use of these services, but that a sense of belonging does (Dopmeijer 2020). A subsequent Dutch survey taken during the COVID-19 pandemic (Dopmeijer 2021) indicates a dire mental health profile of Dutch university students: a majority of them (51%) suffers from mental problems; 68% of them is emotionally exhausted, while a quarter (26%) has to deal with suicidal ideation and intention. 62% of the Dutch university students experiences (very) heavy stress while 76% suffers from performance pressure. About 80% is lonely. These numbers are indicative of a crisis in wellbeing among higher education students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The obvious suggestion is that the pandemic has reinforced the already prevalent mental health problems of students.

This observation makes it interesting to explore the impact of COVID-19 regarding working and studying conditions on wellbeing in greater detail and both compare Dutch and German students on the one hand, and students and staff on the other. In order to determine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we draw our attention to both physical confrontation with COVID-19, and on behavioral consequences of government regulations and measures, such as distance keeping, wearing mouth caps, digital curtailing (only video interaction) and curfew. What is especially important to establish is which dimension of mental health is especially affected by the COVID-19 consequences for studying and working. This requires a more differentiated view of mental health as a clinical notion. What is even more worthwhile is to find out how meaning may act as a resilience factor in this relationship. Resilience is taken as a source of meaning, which conceptually implies a shift from ‘pathogenic’ definitions in evaluating mental health to the ‘salutogenic’ definitions that are emphasized in ‘positive psychology’ and in which meaning, spirituality and connectedness are important (Hernández-Torrano, Ibrayeva et al. 2020). To distinguish between meaning and mental health enables us to identify factors that may be helpful in prevention and support programs at universities. We therefore formulate the aim for this contribution as follows. To contribute to an insight into the study and work effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on wellbeing and meaning among higher education students and staff. In order to pursue that aim, our research question reads: what is the impact of the COVID-19 measures regarding studying and work on mental health of higher education students and university staff and to what extent does meaning influence that relationship?

2 Conceptual Framework

In order to develop the research question above, three concepts need to be defined, i.e. COVID-19 impact, mental health and meaning.

First, the impact of COVID-19 is obviously multi-layered. From a medical perspective, health issues are focal, which is well documented in terms of origin, risk factors, clinical manifestation, transmission, epidemiology and treatments (Harapan, Itoh et al. 2020, Kakodkar, Kaka et al. 2020, Liu, Chee et al. 2020). COVID-19 has also seriously affected firms, governments and all types of organizations in the labor market, as is well illustrated in managerial literature (Piccarozzi, Silvestri et al. 2021, Sigahi, Kawasaki et al. 2021). From a social-psychological perspective several other impact characteristics can be noticed, such as loss of control (agency), social isolation, human loss and financial collapse (Clemente-Suárez, Dalamitros et al. 2020, Rajkumar 2020). Drawing from the various dimensions, two dimensions of the impact can be distinguished. The first dimension reflects direct impact, i.e. the confrontation with infections in one’s neighborhood, which deals with the possibility of immediate health damage and loss of intimate others. The second dimension reflects indirect impact, in terms of the consequences of the lockdown, such as being housebound and limited to video-interaction, which affects the primary process of working and studying such as loss of control regarding study life and order of day, and social isolation especially from peer groups.

Second, mental health is a concept of great complexity to define as it is classically closely related to adjoining notions such as deviance, social maladjustment and morbidity (Farrell 1979). The World Health Organization defines mental health in terms of wellbeing; i.e. ‘a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community’ (World Health 2005). However, this definition has been criticized because of its lack of mental conception and its simple equation with proper functioning. Therefore, more extensive definitions are proposed, such as: ‘Mental health is a dynamic state of internal equilibrium which enables individuals to use their abilities in harmony with universal values of society. Basic cognitive and social skills; ability to recognize, express and modulate one’s own emotions, as well as empathize with others; flexibility and ability to cope with adverse life events and function in social roles; and harmonious relationship between body and mind represent important components of mental health which contribute, to varying degrees, to the state of internal equilibrium’ (Galderisi, Heinz et al. 2015). This emphasis on the dynamic of mental health is also reflected in a motivational definition of mental health that takes three basic human needs into account, as is proposed by psychologists Ryan and Deci. These authors take mental health as a consequence of self-determination, in view of which they distinguish three needs, ‘(a) to engage optimal challenges and experience mastery or effectance in the physical and social worlds; (b) to seek attachments and experience feelings of security, belongingness, and intimacy with others; and (c) to self-organize and regulate one’s own behavior (and avoid heteronomous control), which includes the tendency to work toward inner coherence and integration among regulatory demands and goals’ (Deci and Ryan 2000, Ryan 2017). Taking into account the criticisms of the WHO definition, we take over this self-determined interpretation of mental health as the ability to order one’s life in the satisfaction of these three indicated needs, where emotional wellbeing has a more hedonic tone of personal satisfaction; social wellbeing stresses connectedness; and psychological wellbeing emphasizes self-regulation (Ryff 1989). It seems especially tailored to both the direct and indirect consequences of the COVID-19 impact that we distinguished since these can be taken as basic frustrations of the three elementary needs.

Finally, we take meaning to be the more spiritual inspiration to deal with life and which acts as a resilience factor. Resilience can be defined as the capacity of persons or groups to respond to traumatic or challenging situations (Aburn, Gott et al. 2016). In the course of the years the evolving concept has been applied to many instances, such as families (Gayatri and Irawaty 2021) or organizations (Bhamra, Dani et al. 2011), but also to higher education students (Brewer, Van Kessel et al. 2019) or the setting of universities (Brammer 2020). We interpret this adaptive function of resilience as meaning, that is characterized in terms of basic assumptions that life is ultimately good, that people can be trusted and situations that we engage in are safe. What is more, we assume a sense of self-worth and dignity: we are good, competent and moral beings. It is only in crises that these latent meanings are stirred, become affected or are even shattered (Janoff-Bulman 1992). Another characteristic of this ‘salutogenic’ dimension of meaning is the conviction that the things we do are worthwhile and contribute to our sense of identity (Mittelmark and Bauer 2017). Taken positively, meaning acts as a resilience factor to the extent that people experience coherence (sense of comprehensibility and one’s life making sense), purpose (sense of core goals, aims and direction in life) and significance (sense of life’s inherent value and having a life worth living) (Martela and Steger 2016). When challenged, a person with a strong sense of coherence will: ‘wish to, be motivated to, cope (meaningfulness); believe that the challenge is understood (comprehensibility); believe that resources to cope are available (manageability)’ (Antonovsky 1996). Spirituality as a universal human strive for coherence and connectedness typically stresses this adaptive function of meaning (Jager Meezenbroek, Garssen et al. 2012). Therefore, this ‘salutogenic’ concept of meaning is taken over in our research as a basic resiliency characteristic.

Our conceptual framework can now be elucidated as follows. Mental health indicates problems of emotional, social and psychological wellbeing at the personal level of students and staff that are affected by the COVID-19 impact, which vary according to national location and background characteristics. This impact can be direct (i.e. actual confrontation with the disease) or indirect (i.e. experiencing the impact of the pandemic measures). In order to determine resilience, meaning is taken into account relative to the COVID-19 impact on mental health. Our hypotheses are as follows. We expect that the indirect COVID-19-impact on mental health will be relatively small for emotional and psychological wellbeing and stronger for social wellbeing. The fact that lockdown limits social interactions and affects the agenda of daily life offers arguments for this hypothesis. However, we expect this to be less influential since the confrontation with COVID-19 is too recent to have a major influence on mental health (H1). Next, we hypothesize that any indirect effect of the COVID-19 will be felt stronger among students than among university staff. The reason for that regards the living conditions that can be expected to be more flexible and comfortable among settled adults than among young students which may experience social isolation more severely (H2). We expect that meaning will have a straightforward positive effect on mental health (especially when it is low), albeit less on its social dimension. The reason for the latter assumption is that meaning is not a generic disposition but depends on the source that is tapped for adapting to the pandemic. Arguing from that, social wellbeing is more depending on the context, where the emotional and psychological wellbeing offers more opportunities for adaptation and control (H3). Next to this, we expect that dispositional aspects of meaning (i.e. meaningfulness, trust and acceptance) will more strongly predict emotional and psychological well-being, whereas contextual aspects of meaning (i.e. connectedness with nature and care for others) will more clearly affect social wellbeing. The argument here obviously regards the plausibility that source selection in meaning is likely to predict the corresponding mental aspect of health (H4). Finally we expect that Dutch and German students and staff will differ on emotional and psychological wellbeing, but not on social wellbeing. The reason is that emotional and psychological mental health is more undermined by pandemic regulations on campuses in the Netherlands, while social wellbeing can be expected to be likewise related to similar contexts of national COVID-19 measures. Previous research further assumes that mental health of Dutch higher education students was already affected negatively before the pandemic whereas we do not have strong indications for a similar situation in Germany, since it experienced an upswing in life satisfaction over the last years (Helliwell 2020) (H5).

3 Method

3.1 Participants

In the second half of April 2020, approximately a month after the lockdown, with various social restrictions, in the Netherlands and Germany, students and staff members of two universities in Germany (Technische Universität Dortmund and Universität Siegen) and one university in the Netherlands (Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen), were asked to fill in an online questionnaire about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their working conditions, mental health and meaning, as well as their ways of communicating.

The Dutch staff sample is representative regarding various demographic variables (such as gender, age and nationality); the same applies for students, except regarding an underrepresentation of male students. For both German universities, response rates are unavailable so that the degree of representativeness for this country cannot be established. For our sample overview see Figure 1.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Sample characteristics

Citation: Journal of Empirical Theology 2024; 10.1163/15709256-20231143

3.2 Measures

What follows is an overview of the variables in our survey.

3.2.1 Dependent Variable

Our dependent variable is mental health, a continuous scale, labelled as the ‘Dutch Mental Health Continuum-Short Form’ (MHC-SF) (Luijten, Kuppens et al. 2019), that has been constructed based on respondent’s feelings during the month before completing the questionnaire. The original scale consists of fourteen items, with three items measuring emotional wellbeing, five items measuring social wellbeing, and six items measuring psychological wellbeing, each in a subscale. The scales range from ‘very negative’ (1) to ‘very positive’ (6). To test the construct validity of this instrument in our sample, we conducted a confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) using the lavaan package (version 0.6–9) of the statistical software R (Rosseel 2012). We specified a hierarchical model with three first-order factors (the three subscales) and one second-order factor (the main scale). This model did not achieve sufficient values in the relevant goodness-of-fit indicators (χ² (d.f. = 74; N = 3,319) = 2579.220 (p < .001); χ²/d.f. = 43.85; RMSEA = .101; CFI = .876; TLI = .847) which is why, in a second step, we excluded six items from the model that had too low factor loadings (< .6). The revised model consisted of three first-order factors with three items measuring emotional wellbeing, three items measuring social wellbeing, and two items measuring psychological wellbeing as well as one second-order factor (the main scale). This revised model achieved the required values in the goodness-of-fit indicators (χ² (d.f. = 17; N = 3,339) = 211.777 (p < .001); χ²/ d.f. = 12.46; RMSEA = .059; CFI = .984; TLI = .974), so we calculated the main scale and subscales accordingly and used them in the further analyses. The confirmatory factor-model is presented in appendix 1.

3.2.2 Independent Variables

Regarding the impact of COVID-19 we distinguish three independent variables: (evaluation of) home work/study situation, COVID-19 hospitalization and frequency of video calling. Our first independent variable concerns satisfaction with working or studying from home in the month prior to completing the questionnaire; it is a continuous scale with two subscales, each consisting of two items, measuring positive respectively negative experiences with working from home. It ranges from “totally disagree” (1) to “totally agree” (5) (with regard to study/work situation). To test the construct validity of this instrument, we conducted a confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) using the lavaan package of the statistical software R. We specified a model with two factors (the two subscales) which achieved the required values in the goodness-of-fit indicators (χ² (d.f. = 1; N = 3,326) = 0.175 (p = .675); χ²/d.f. = 0.175; RMSEA = .000; CFI = .999; TLI = .999). We calculated the subscales accordingly and used them in the regression analyses. COVID-19 hospitalization is a dummy variable which records whether respondents, family members or other people in one’s close social environment (i.e. partner, children, housemates, parents, siblings, close relatives, good friends or fellow colleagues/students) were hospitalized due to COVID-19 during the month before completing the questionnaire, with (1) recording any of these hospitalizations, and (0) stands for no hospitalization. Frequency of video calling is a single item and records the number of times video calling (e.g. skype, zoom, teams) was used to work with colleagues or fellow students during the month before completing the questionnaire; this variable ranges from ‘rarely or never’ (1) to ‘almost every hour’ (6). The confirmatory factor-model is presented in Appendix 2.

To gain insight into the ‘salutogenic’ aspects of meaning, five continuous subscales, based on the ‘SAIL’ scale (Spirituele attitude en Interesse Lijst; ‘Spiritual Attitude and Involvement List’), have been constructed based on the respondent’s view on their life and what was of value for them during the month before completing the questionnaire (Jager Meezenbroek, Garssen et al. 2012). In the original instrument, these five subscales consist of seventeen items, with four items measuring trust, four items measuring caring for others, three items measuring meaningfulness, two items measuring connectedness to nature, and four items measuring acceptance. Mind that meaning as main variable relates to the SAIL overall analysis, where the subdimension of meaningfulness relates to the felt purpose and significance of personal life. The scales range from a “low degree” (1) to a “high degree” of meaning (6). To test the construct validity of this instrument in our sample, we again conducted a confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) using the lavaan package of the statistical software R. We specified a hierarchical model with five first-order factors (the five subscales) and one second-order factor (the main scale). This model did not achieve sufficient values on the relevant fit indicators (χ² (d.f. = 114; N = 3,326) = 2526.239 (p < .001); χ²/d.f. = 22.16; RMSEA = .080; CFI = .868; TLI = .843). A problem was that three items had factor loadings that were too low (< .6) and that the hierarchical structure of the model was not reflected in the data. We therefore excluded the three items with low factor loadings and specified a revised model consisting of five independent factors (the five subscales) without an additional second-order factor. This revised model achieved the required values in the goodness-of-fit indicators (χ² (d.f. = 67; N = 3,330) = 1220.203 (p < .001); χ²/d.f. = 18.21; RMSEA = .072; CFI = .927; TLI = .900), so we calculated the subscales accordingly and used them in the regression analyses. The confirmatory factor-model is presented in Appendix 3.

In our analyses, we control for four independent variables in order to reduce the risk of spurious relationships. These are country, age, gender and type. Country is a dummy variable with ‘Dutch’ (1) and ‘German’ (0). Age has four categories, considered as continuous: ‘25 years and younger’, ’26 to 30 years’, ’31 to 40 years’ and ‘over 40 years of age’ (the latter category due to the age structure of university population). Gender and type are both dummy variables with respectively ‘male’ (1) and ‘female’ (0), and ‘student’ (1) and ‘staff member’ (0).

3.2.3 Overview of the Variables

The overview (table 1) contains descriptive statistics of all variables. 3,322 respondents have no missing values on all these variables and are included in our explanatory analyses. For all regression analyses variance inflation factors (VIF) of predictors are below 3, which is well below the cut-off value of 10 (Meuleman, Loosveldt, & Emonds, 2015), indicating that there are no problems with multicollinearity.

Table 1
Table 1
Descriptive statistics for all dependent and independent variables

Citation: Journal of Empirical Theology 2024; 10.1163/15709256-20231143

4 Results

4.1 Correlation Analysis

We first offer an overview of the correlations of our main variables (table 2).

Again, mind that in the table above, meaning (total) as an overall variable relates to the SAIL analysis overall subdimensions, where the subdimension of meaningfulness relates to the felt purpose and significance of personal life. We notice that our dependent variable displays strong correlations (> ,50) with overall meaning (0,54), especially regarding its subdimensions of meaningfulness (0,59) and trust (0,51) that are related to the emotional and psychological dimensions of wellbeing.

Table 2
Table 2

Correlationsa of all variables with mental health, including subscales emotional, social and psychological wellbeing

Citation: Journal of Empirical Theology 2024; 10.1163/15709256-20231143

4.2 Regression Analyses

We subsequently answer the question to what extent our dependent variable of mental health, inclusive of its subdimensions can be explained. In order to do that we employ a three model regression analysis, in which wellbeing can be predicted in cumulative terms of: 1) COVID-19 impact; 2) meaning; and finally 3) demographic characteristics. We first show the predictors for overall mental health effects, and subsequently the same for the mental health subdimensions of emotional, social and psychological wellbeing (see Table 3).

Table 3
Table 3

Regression analyses for mental health

Citation: Journal of Empirical Theology 2024; 10.1163/15709256-20231143

A first observation is that not direct impact of COVID-19 (corona hospitalization) but indirect impact (work/study situation and video calling) contributes to mental health. Negative work or home experiences of COVID-19 undermines to some extent mental health; an observation that remains intact in all three models. Secondly, we find that meaning increases the explanatory strength of the model, especially regarding the dimensions of meaningfulness and trust. Thirdly, we notice that when we check for demographic characteristics, only being Dutch as compared to being German contributes to mental health. Overall, we notice a strongly increased explanatory power over the three models.

We subsequently move on to a more detailed look at our dependent variable to find out to what extent subdimensions of mental health provide more insight on the impact of COVID-19 and the role of meaning. In order to do that, we replicate our model for the three subdimensions starting with emotional wellbeing, which relates to personal satisfaction and happiness (see Table 4).

Table 4
Table 4

Regression analyses for emotional wellbeing

Citation: Journal of Empirical Theology 2024; 10.1163/15709256-20231143

We immediately notice that the first model more or less replicates the overall analysis of mental health. The same counts for the second model with the exception of care for other people which loses significance as factor that contributes to emotional wellbeing. That holds for the third model as well, but here we notice that the felt connection with nature contributes to emotional wellbeing, if only slightly. Also, age (being younger) seems to contribute to emotional wellbeing to some extent.

Next we check for social wellbeing, which emphasizes experiences of connectedness. Again all three models were applied as is reported in table 5.

Table 5
Table 5

Regression analyses for social wellbeing

Citation: Journal of Empirical Theology 2024; 10.1163/15709256-20231143

What we notice here, as compared to the overall analysis of mental health, is that positive experiences of working at home lose their significance for social wellbeing in all three models. This obviously makes sense as (also positive experiences with) working at home does not induce connectedness, while negative experiences with working at home can be expected to emphasize relative isolation. As soon as meaning is brought into the analysis, the subdimension of acceptance losses its explanatory power, which perhaps indicates resistance to the isolation experiences resulting from lockdown measures. Added insights from the third model are limited to a slight age effect, where being older to some extent contributes to feelings of connectedness, which may be taken as an indicator of the support by established relationships at older age as compared to younger age. Overall it must be noticed that social wellbeing remains the less explained dimension of mental health, as can be concluded from the low R2 as compared to those for emotional and psychological wellbeing.

Finally we have a look at psychological wellbeing, which indicates the self-regulation dimension of mental health. Again we apply our three models strategy, as is now depicted in table 6.

Table 6
Table 6

Regression analyses for psychological wellbeing

Citation: Journal of Empirical Theology 2024; 10.1163/15709256-20231143

Regarding the first model we notice that frequency of video-calling no longer acts as a predictor of the psychological dimension of mental health. The actual interactions in lockdown contexts do not improve self-regulation; an observation that we did not find regarding emotional or social dimensions of mental health. This may indicate a potential dissatisfaction with the aptness of this type of communication. When we look at the inclusion of the subscale of meaningfulness we notice a relatively strong contribution to the total explained variance of psychological wellbeing compared to the emotional and social dimensions of mental health. This also holds for the aspects of trust and (to a lesser extent) acceptance. This may be an indication of self-assurance vis-a-vis the impact of the COVID-19-crisis, which seems to overrule the impact of positive experiences of working at home. This predictor remains intact in the third model, where being younger and being male add further significance. As compared to the other dimensions of mental health, nationality is not a factor that adds to the explanation of psychological wellbeing.

5 Summary, Conclusion and Discussion

5.1 Summary

After having presented our descriptive and explorative analysis we now deal with our hypotheses by way of summary.

In our first hypothesis we expected that the indirect COVID-19-impact would be relatively small for emotional and psychological wellbeing and somewhat stronger for social wellbeing. Overall, this hypothesis is corroborated as is indicated by the negative influence of home and work situation experiences on all dimensions of mental health. However, contrary to expectations, this was relatively less important for social wellbeing than for emotional wellbeing. However, judging from the positive influence of video-interaction, the actual contact opportunities that are left may act as a lifeline for emotional and social wellbeing even though we notice that this contact does not contribute to the dimension of psychological wellbeing.

Our second hypothesis assumed that the indirect COVID-19-impact would be greater among students than among university staff because the living conditions of settled adults in lockdown are better than those of lodged younger students. This hypothesis is not corroborated in our research. Both in the overall analysis of mental health and in each of its subdimensions, this hypothesis candidates for refutation. Apparently, the indirect COVID-19 affects students and staff equally, regardless of the resilience related to meaning that we took into account, and both in view of life satisfaction, feelings of connectedness, and personal control. This of course does not exclude the possibility that for specific subgroups, such as international students or those with explicit mental health issues, observations might be different. However, our dataset is not suitable to verify these last comments.

Our third hypothesis dealt with the idea that meaning would display a straightforward positive effect on mental health, albeit less on social wellbeing, taking into account that the latter is context dependent as compared to the more controllable aspects of emotional and psychological wellbeing. This is substantiated if we look at the general model, and our hypothesis regarding social wellbeing matches the data as well, since its contribution to mental wellbeing is significantly less compared to the other dimensions. This allows us to assume that social wellbeing is indeed context-based where solutions for improving mental health probably need to address contexts rather than person oriented interventions.

Fourthly, we did expect that the more dispositional aspects of meaning (i.e. meaningfulness, trust and acceptance) would more strongly contribute to emotional and psychological dimensions of mental health, whereas contextual aspects of meaning (i.e. connectedness with nature and care for others) would be more relevant for social wellbeing. This largely matches the results, with the relative correction that this is corroborated especially for the dimensions of meaningfulness and trust that more strongly induce emotional and psychological wellbeing. However, in view of social wellbeing, only care for other people matches the hypothesis while connection to nature does not add anything at all here. Even though nature is appreciated most strongly among our respondents; it does not contribute to social wellbeing, giving ground to the assumption that this source of inspiration may reflect an individual concern or practice.

Fifthly and finally we did expect – motivated by our literature review – that nationality would predict emotional and psychological wellbeing, favoring the Dutch over the German population, while social wellbeing would not display such a distinction. Our data confirm the relevance of national location, but not completely in the expected manner. Dutch score higher on emotional and social wellbeing than Germans, while the difference between the countries does not hold in the regression analyses for psychological wellbeing. Especially regarding emotional wellbeing Dutch students and staff may be better equipped than their German colleagues to deal with the impact of COVID-19 measures on mental health.

5.2 Conclusion

By way of conclusion we can now answer our research question: what is the impact of the COVID-19 measures regarding studying and work on mental health of higher education students and university staff and to what extent does meaning influence that relationship? We have found that the impact of COVID-19 on mental health is indeed significant, however only indirectly in terms of the consequences of the lockdown measures such as working at home and online interactions, and only when these were experienced as negative. We did not find direct influences in terms of the impact of personal confrontation with COVID-19. Overall, we did not find differences between students and staff. We found this impact to be stronger among Dutch as compared to German students and staff, especially regarding emotional wellbeing. We however did not check for interaction effects for German students studying at Radboud university.

Meaning, considered as a factor of resilience with its spiritual inspiration to deal with life, has indeed a significant influence on mental health, especially so regarding its subdimension of meaningfulness and trust. This remains intact after controlling for demographic variables. The explanatory power of meaning is strong, especially regarding emotional and psychological wellbeing.

5.3 Discussion

Our research provides a snapshot of the COVID-19 pandemic at its inception in two western-European countries among highly educated populations. It offers an insight view of the effects of a crisis in work and study conditions on mental wellbeing. We identify three topics of discussion that our analyses give rise to.

A first topic of discussion relates to the need to take into account the mental consequences of large scale invasive events in daily life. The event is not so much the health risk that the virus itself imposes, but the subsequent effort to avoid those risks by massive interventions in public and private life. While these interventions have a logic of their own and are usually accepted as necessary and unavoidable, one should not ignore the (physical and mental) health risks related to emotional, social and psychological wellbeing, especially in view of daily life satisfaction and mental self-regulation. Stated positively, (campus) mental health programs should take into account emotional and psychological aspects of wellbeing, while campus contexts may need to be adapted to allow for better opportunities to meet in pandemic settings in order to contribute to social wellbeing.

A second topic regards meaning. We have interpreted meaning as a resilience factor and found it to have strong influence, especially regarding meaningfulness as an indicator of felt significance and regarding trust as the ability to manage setbacks. It remains a question to what extent this safeguard proves to be enduring over the course of the pandemic. That does not take away the observation that it is important not to limit the experiential consequences of COVID-19 to the clinical aspects of mental health. The more value-based dispositions towards life as such require programmatic attention as well.

Finally a third topic relates to our international comparison. While COVID-19 policies and regulations in the Netherlands and Germany have had very similar characteristics, the impact may be experienced differently, both emotionally and socially as our research has shown. This indicates the need to take into account cultural differences in the perception of mental health that especially seem to be related to the way in which basic satisfaction of life is appreciated in different national contexts.

Appendices

Appendix 1 Confirmatory Factor Analysis of Selected Items from the Dutch Mental Health Continuum-Short Form (MHC-SF)

FIG000008

Appendix 2 Confirmatory Factor Analysis of the Working/Studying from Home Situation Scale

FIG000009

Appendix 3 Confirmatory Factor Analysis of Selected Items from the Spiritual Attitude and Involvement List (SAIL)

FIG000010

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