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How can universities support student mental health post-pandemic?

24 Mar Rebecca Low 0 Blog

Undertaking a degree programme at any level represents an exciting new chapter for students. Studying at university opens up countless opportunities for learning, networking and socialising. For some, it can also be a time of great change and stress. Throw in the effects of a year studying, working and living through a global pandemic and the impact on student mental health makes for worrying reading.

According to a recent study by online learning platform Chegg, more than half of students said that their mental health has suffered during the past year of COVID-19. The global study found that instances of stress amongst students were high; 81% of students reported an increase in their stress and anxiety. Only 17% sought help and support for their mental health.

This gap between the number of students who have reported worsening mental health and the number who sought support for it prompts questions around the (real and perceived) accessibility of student mental health services. Not all students will need long-term professional mental health support or serious intervention. At the same time, universities have a responsibility to create a supportive environment for students who may be struggling. We will be living with the after-effects of the pandemic for years to come, so how can universities help students manage their mental health now and post-COVID 19?

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Student mental health and finances

Money and financial security is one of the most significant factors that effects mental health. The financial impact of the pandemic has also reached students, further adding to the stress and anxiety felt by many. Chegg found that over half (53%) of students polled have struggled to meet their living costs in the last year; this included rent/mortgage, utility bills, food and medical treatment.

With continuing uncertainty around the global economy and the changing face of the jobs market, many students may see the financial impact of the pandemic affecting their academic and personal lives for a while yet. Luckily, universities have ways to help their students with this. Many institutions have dedicated financial services for students, offering advice, support and in some cases funding or loans.

The affordability of studying is changing, too. We have previously discussed the accelerated move towards blended-learning and pay-as-you-learn models across the board. These models give students greater flexibility around the length of time spent studying and the cost. Students can pay fees only for the selected elements they study. If this way of learning continues, alongside more traditional in-person teaching, we may see students less put off by the financial burden of studying, alongside the associated costs of relocation and travel.

Impact of social distancing on student mental health

A significant driver for students choosing to study on-campus is the prospect of a vibrant social life. Social distancing and lockdown measures in countries around the world made in-person socialising effectively impossible, leading to greater isolation and feelings of loneliness amongst students. Over half (53%) of students in England were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their social life.

The National Union of Students in the UK found that less than two-thirds of students surveyed felt they had sufficient social contact with others. Of the 4,000 students they spoke to, nearly 60% felt they were interacting less with other students at their university. Only 13% were seeing friends more than once a week and ‘feelings of love and belonging have fallen since the summer [of 2020]’.

Higher education institutions can work to combat students’ feelings of isolation through online and in-person solutions. Student union bodies and student councils have direct access to the students they represent, often in ways that teaching staff don’t naturally have. Staff can work directly with the bodies that represent students’ interests to develop and deliver regular social events. Depending on the size of the institution, these can range from tutor group film screenings to department-wide online networking events. This is especially important for students undertaking distance learning; they can still feel part of the wider student body, without setting a foot on campus.

It is likely that students will have mixed feelings about the prospect of returning to on-campus learning. With that in mind, universities could continue to support students through the offer of blended events, which have a mix of in-person and online interaction, where possible. This will help to ensure the comfort and safety of students and staff. It also enables everyone to feel part of the university community, wherever they are.

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Identifying and supporting students at risk

The events of the last year have highlighted the importance of pastoral care within education communities and institutions. Student unions and student councils often have stronger personal relationships with the student community as a whole. Nonetheless, staff can still offer crucial personal support to students at risk of poor mental health.

Without face-to-face teaching, it can be easier for more vulnerable students to slip through the cracks in student support networks. This is where teaching staff can help. Staff will have a good idea of who is and isn’t turning up to online seminars. They will realise who is submitting work or joining in group projects. They will also know who has chosen to learn remotely from the start of their studies. Conversely, they will know which students have been forced to move to online learning and who might need more support to adjust.

If staff have a good relationship with students, they may know who has external commitments that may be causing extra stress. Students with caring responsibilities for other family members, childcare commitments or juggling a full- or part-time job alongside their studies may all be feeling the strain of studying during a pandemic. If appropriate, staff may feel it is important to reach out to those students in particular, either to offer direct support or highlight existing student services.

What is crucial is that staff are supported too. It may be useful for staff to organise regular check-ins with colleagues or engage with staff mental health services if they need to. The emotional impact of the last twelve months has been felt by everyone, students and staff. It’s important that good mental health is a focus for universities across their teaching and learning community.

Supporting student mental health now and in the future

One year on, we are entering a period of reflection. We are also considering the initial stages of recovery from the impact of COVID-19. The health and wellbeing of students and faculty staff will be central to this process.

Student mental health directly correlates with the health and wellbeing of university communities. This, in turn, impacts the higher education sector as a whole. The ways in which students engage with their studies is changing, that is true. But what remains is their need to feel connected and supported. From finance, regular opportunities to socialise and raising awareness to students most at risk, there are many ways that universities can support student mental health. It’s a crucial aspect of university life both now and in the post-pandemic years to come.