Author: Julia Pickelmann
Since the summer semester of 2020, the current COVID-19 pandemic has massively changed the daily study routine for about 380,000 students in Austria. The nationwide measures, closed universities as well as the change in the learning landscape presented students with unprecedented challenges. As part of my master's thesis at the MCI Management Center Innsbruck, I investigated the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health status and academic performance of university students in Austria. In March 2021, an online questionnaire was sent out to all 73 tertiary education institutions in Austria in cooperation with the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research and was also shared via relevant social media channels. The questionnaire was largely based on validated measurement instruments and included, for example, the Patient Health Questionnaire-4 (PHQ-4) , the Perceived Stress Scale-10 (PSS) and individual questions from the Student Social Survey 2019. A total of 5,098 questionnaires, predominantly completed in German (97%), were included in the analysis. With a statistical population of 376,050 university students in Austria, this corresponds to a response rate of 1.36%.
All data collected is based on the self-assessment of the participants - the significance is therefore limited and the results must be interpreted with caution. Moreover, the results of the psychological scales only reveal tendencies and not diagnoses.
More than two-thirds of the students surveyed reported that their mental health was somewhat (46%) or much (26%) worse since the COVID-19 outbreak than in the period before. 20% indicated that it has remained about the same, and 6% perceive their mental health to be somewhat better and 2% much better compared to before the pandemic outbreak. In addition, the PHQ-4 indicated severe psychological distress in 42% of respondents and 43% of students tested positive for tendencies of anxiety and 48% for tendencies of depression (see Graph 1). 32% of the participating students showed a comorbidity of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, 17% of the students surveyed in the PSS reported low levels of stress, while 58% experienced moderate and 25% high perceived stress (see Graph 2).
To identify additional stress-related difficulties and psychological complaints, a question was adopted from the Student Social Survey 2019. The strongest effects were reported for the items lack of study motivation (55%) and learning and concentration difficulties (54%).
In addition, more than one-third of students indicated that stress-related health complaints (40%), depressive moods (39%), fear of failure/examination anxiety (39%), and lack of self-esteem (35%) had a strong impact on their studies (see Graph 3). Since 2019, the situation of university students has noticeably worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with some values being one and a half or almost twice as high as before (see Graph 4). In particular, learning and concentration difficulties, lack of study motivation, lack of self-esteem, and depressive moods have increased significantly. However, it must be noted that this survey was conducted with other students, and a conclusion can therefore only be drawn with caution and on an aggregated level.
Regarding the impact on students' academic performance, it is important to first note that academic performance is an interplay of several indicators, including workload, attendance, grades, and personal factors. Nearly half of the participants (47%) indicated that their workload has increased since the switch to online lectures. Given the new teaching and learning environments, most students indicated that they miss the personal exchange with other students (87%) and teachers (75%), find it more difficult to focus and stay engaged in online teaching (72%), and motivate themselves to study (66%) since the outbreak of COVID-19. However, 71% also said that digital teaching formats make them more flexible in terms of time. More than half of the students surveyed felt that online lectures did not provide them with the same quality of education (56%) and did not allow them to study efficiently (53%). 44% also stated that questions cannot be answered as well in digital teaching formats as in personal contact (see Graph 6). Nevertheless, attendance and grades remained the same for the majority of respondents.
To conclude, mental health issues among students are not new. The results of the Student Social Survey have been drawing attention to mental health problems for the past several years. COVID-19 has, however, significantly negatively influenced the mental health status of university students in Austria. More than two-thirds of students feel that their mental health has deteriorated due to the pandemic. This is also reflected in the positive screening tendencies for depression and anxiety in almost half of all respondents and the consistently high stress levels. Studying during a pandemic is a considerable challenge for the students surveyed. Even though for the majority grades and attendance did not deteriorate, it can be said that COVID-19 has negatively impacted university students’ academic performance as a whole. This is mainly reflected in concentration and motivation difficulties and lower efficiency levels. Therefore, there is an urgent need for targeted actions and measures including for example:
- More information and awareness on how to stay mentally healthy in times of a crisis and where to get help if needed
- A broader, lower threshold and affordable access to mental health services and expanded capacities of psychological student counseling services
- Preventive services and programs at Austrian universities to counteract the rising trend of mental health issues
- Greater awareness through politics
Cohen, S., Kamarck, T., & Mermelstein, R. (1983). A Global Measure of Perceived Stress. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 24(4), 385.
Institut für Höhere Studien (2019). Fragebogen der Studierenden-Sozialerhebung 2019. Retrieved May 10, 2021, from http://www.sozialerhebung.at/images/Berichte/SOLA19_Fragebogen_publ.pdf.
Kroenke, K., Spitzer, R. L., Williams, J. B.W., & Löwe, B. (2009). An Ultra-Brief Screening Scale for Anxiety and Depression: The PHQ–4. Psychosomatics, 50(6), 613–621.
 The Patient Health Questionnaire-4 (PHQ-4) is an ultra-brief measurement of psychological distress and the core symptoms and signs of anxiety and depression (Kroenke, Spitzer, Williams, & Löwe, 2009).
 The Perceived Stress Scale-10 (PSS) is a 10-item validated stress assessment instrument that measures the extent to which situations in a person's life are perceived as stressful (Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983).
 The Student Social Survey is a survey on Austrian students that has been conducted repeatedly since the 1970s on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research (Institut für Höhere Studien, 2019).