Female and religious university students are more inclined to fear COVID-19, according to new research, which confirmed increased use of alcohol, heightened depression and loneliness among students as they weather the pandemic.

Analysing students who used substances before COVID-19, almost 40 per cent reported increased use of cigarettes, 29.9 per cent reported increased use of alcohol, and 46.9 per cent reported increased cannabis use – all as a result of their fear of coronavirus.

The data was collected last year from 777 online surveys, with replies submitted by University of Malta students aged between 18 and 60.

Conducted in collaboration with Ben Gurion University of the Negev – Regional Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center, the data was analysed by Jamie Bonnici, Marilyn Clark and Andrew Azzopardi from the Faculty for Social Well-being.

It has just been published in a Malta Journal of Health Sciences research paper called ‘Fear of COVID-19 and its Impact on Maltese University Students’ Well-being and Substance Use’.

A third of the participants – the highest share – scored in the high range on the fear scale used by the researchers, followed by nearly 30 per cent with a medium level of fear, and another 29 per cent with a low level of fear.

It transpired that gender and religiosity were significantly associated with levels of fear, with women and students who identified as being more religious more likely to have a higher level of fear of COVID-19.

More than a quarter of the respondents said they were religious or very religious, while more than two-fifths identified as somewhat religious. The data showed that the less religious participants were, the more likely they were to binge drink during the pandemic.

Emotional well-being

While three out of every five respondents felt more depressed during the pandemic, the majority – 70.4 per cent – reported feeling more nervous, followed by 64.9 per cent who felt more exhausted. According to the final data, three-quarters of female respondents felt nervous, compared to 57 per cent of male students.

Similarly, 70 per cent of women felt more exhausted while 51 per cent of men reported increased exhaustion. Additionally, 61 per cent of participants reported an increase in loneliness but there was no significant gender difference.

Meanwhile, university students identifying as religious were less likely to report feeling depressed, exhausted and lonely but more likely to report feeling nervous and angry.

Participants who were somewhat religious reported the largest increases in feeling nervous (75.5 per cent), followed by 68.2 per cent of religious participants and 65.6 per cent of secular participants.

What next?

In analysing the gender and religiosity links, the researchers note that COVID-19 has significantly impacted the hospitality industry, an area where one finds high female employment. It has also forced the closure of daycare centres and schools, having a negative repercussion on working mothers.

The researchers believe that gender differences point to young women’s vulnerability and warrant further research about the impact that COVID might be having on female students.

And although religiosity was not protective vis-à-vis psychological well-being, it may have served as a protective factor against contracting the virus due to increased sense of fear.

Ultimately, the researchers note that the results of this study show that university students in Malta have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and that student support services, including advisory (academic) and counselling services, need to be ready to deal with the potential fallout from increased negative emotional states and substance use.

“Overall, these results highlight the potential protective function that religiosity plays in reducing students’ use of certain substances. This could indicate that students who are not religious may benefit from increased support, which may allow them to cope with life stressors in more healthy ways.”

Azzopardi told Times of Malta the researchers recognise the university’s improved support services (Health and Wellness Center) for staff and students and its adaptation of the services during the pandemic.

Still, in the paper they express concern about the rise in use of certain substances among students, which they say requires consideration due to the potential increase in harmful effects on their physical and psychological well-being.

They also recommend the development of “a meaningful research agenda” at the University of Malta and adequate funding to continuously monitor student well-being.

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