Mental health fears as Chinese campuses stay locked down

A year-and-a-half into pandemic, some students still need permission to leave their university, with weekends often the only opportunity

July 5, 2021
Students queue up for nucleic acid test at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies as they are mentioned in the copy.
Source: Getty

Students and academics have expressed mounting concern about the impact of ongoing Chinese university lockdowns on learners’ mental health.

Students in several parts of the country, even those with low Covid-19 case numbers, still need permission to leave their campus. Some are only allowed to go out at weekends.

One student based in Hebei said that their campus lockdown rules had “not been lifted at all” until the end of June, even though the province has not reported any coronavirus cases since early February.

“It is hard to get permission to go out, and even with permission, you need to return to campus before 7pm,” he told Times Higher Education.

The student said that many of his classmates had stayed within the university confines for a whole year, while he had left only twice, on sick leave.

“Students have been suffering; it’s not just about being locked up physically, but also about feeling aggrieved,” he said.

Another student in Shanxi, whose university only allows them to leave campus at weekends, described the restrictions as a form of “formalism”.

“We have been vaccinated and there have been no local cases, but my university decided not to follow some other institutions to lift the rules,” he told THE. “Mental health support for students? Not heard of it. There has only been lockdown, as long as it does not hurt some people’s interests.”

Meanwhile, academic studies are starting to track the impact of long-running coronavirus restrictions. One study of 1,000 students in Shanghai and Nanjing, published last month, found that 73 per cent of participants reported decreased energy levels and 83 per cent showed signs of “depersonalisation” in what was described as a “half closed-up environment”.

Another study, covering more than 500 students across 12 universities in Changsha, indicated that learners from poorer socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to report lower scores for mental health.

Concerns about the lengthy duration of China’s Covid-related campus lockdowns first emerged last autumn, when students reported being required to stay on campus and check in daily using a location-based mobile app. Students reported that universities had installed CCTV cameras and barbed wire fences, and banned takeaways. They expressed anger online about the uneven lifting of restrictions across different institutions.

More than six months on, some universities still have restrictions in place. Institutions in Guangdong have been under a fresh lockdown since late May following a surge of Covid cases in the province.

Wendy Li, associate professor of psychology at Australia’s James Cook University, has been conducting a longitudinal study of Chinese students’ mental health before, during and after lockdowns.

“For students who stayed on campus during the lockdown period, isolation, lack of support from their family members, limited living and exercise spaces may collectively have a negative impact on students’ mental health,” she said.

The study that Dr Li co-authored noticed improvements in the mental health of surveyed students in the post-lockdown period, which could be a result of “novelty seeking, cultural factors and flexible teaching arrangements”. This could shed light on how students may recover after months of lockdown.

“I believe these factors could still have the same effects even after a long lockdown,” she said.

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