Blog series #6: Health and wellbeing of university students during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. Heide Busse is a postdoc at Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiologie – BIPS and does research on complex public health interventions for health promotion. In a recent study, she looked at changes in health risk behaviors among university students. In the sixth part of our blog interview series, she explains what universities should consider now.

Foto: Sebastian Budde

Name / Institute:
Dr. Heide Busse
BIPS – Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology, Bremen
Head of Unit Applied Intervention Research
Leibniz Section C

Research topic:
Public health, interventions, evaluation, prevention

Main featured instrument or technique:

“I investigate how the COVID-19 pandemic impacts on the health and wellbeing of university students to inform health promotion activities.”

Why did you decide to stay in academia after your PhD?

What works, for whom and under which circumstances in improving health and wellbeing? How can we build health-promoting settings and environments for children and young people? How can we best enable families to move more and eat healthier? And what methods are best suited to test if a “health initiative” has been successful or not? These and more questions fascinate me and are the type of questions that I would like to conduct research on and contribute to find answers to.

My PhD – investigating the potential of mentoring programs for young people’s health, wellbeing and educational outcomes – showed me once more that there are still a lot of unanswered questions in public health, thus still a lot that we do not yet know.  Researching public health topics can be quite complex at times, which is why teamwork and collaborative working is required to tackle these challenges and find solutions. Working together with the public, with stakeholders and also with other researchers on these challenges and learning from one another is something I personally really enjoy about being a researcher in public health and this was yet another aspect that  made me want to stay in academia after my PhD.

What was your main research topic in the last 1-2 years before spring 2020?

My research concerns the development, evaluation and implementation of complex health public interventions for health promotion in the areas of physical activity, nutrition and mental health. I use a mixture of qualitative and quantitative research methods to investigate which health interventions work, for whom, under which circumstances, and why. Most of my work focusses on children and young people and the settings in which they spend much of their time (schools/ communities/ etc.).

What are the main findings of your work on COVID; and did the results surprise you?

In our study, we investigated how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on the health and wellbeing of university students by conducting an online survey at five higher education institutions in Germany in May 2020. A total of 5,021 students participated in the survey and looking at students’ engagement in health risk behaviours, we found that most changes were reported on levels of physical activity, with 30% of students reporting an increase and 19% a decrease in their physical activity levels. Unsurprisingly, 24% reported a decrease in binge drinking and hardly any changes were reported in student’s tobacco or cannabis consumption. A majority of students reported the presence of depressive symptoms and this was related to changes in their health behaviours and their feeling about their academic life and progress. Our study was part of the larger COVID-19 International Student Well-Being Study (C19 ISWS), led by researchers at the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

Can you derive recommendations for universities or for university students from your study?

In short: I believe that a variety of approaches and initiatives – at the structural as well as the community and individual level are necessary to promote health and wellbeing amongst university students – also during (and after) the COVID-19 pandemic. For universities, one way to promote health and wellbeing among the student population is by making health and wellbeing a priority in the academic life. One way to do so is by providing and setting up appropriate structures for health promotion and facilitating a health-promoting culture and ethos in the university setting (e.g. establishing health promotion policies, offering easy access to services and facilities for all students, etc.).

How has COVID affected your life?

Since the start of the pandemic I have been predominantly working from home, with all meetings and exchanges currently taking place solely online. This has been quite a change compared to before the pandemic, where I would spend most of my work time at the institute, taking place in face-to-face meetings and sitting together with colleagues at lunchtime (which I do miss a lot!). Working in an epidemiological research institute, the COVID-19 pandemic has of course also led to a variety of new research projects and activities in our institute. Some of my colleagues remain closely involved in contributing their epidemiological expertise to counter the pandemic, such as through the Competence Network Public Health COVID-19 ( that has been set up at the start of the pandemic.

What would be the one take-home message of your research?

Effective efforts to promote student health and wellbeing continue to be required, also in times of the pandemic and beyond.

How does your perfect day off work look like?

My perfect day off involves getting up early to be active, followed by a leisurely breakfast or brunch (including a lot of good coffee!). For the remainder of the day I would choose to go spend as much time as possible outside, in nature, discovering new places, ideally with the sun being out and with family and friends around.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Heide Busse for supporting our new blog interview format with active participation.

Find out more about Dr. Heide Busse and her work:

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