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Listening to higher education communities about mental health

  • 6 August 2021
  • By Nicola Frampton

This blog was kindly contributed by Nicola Frampton, Insight Manager at Student Minds. You can follow Nicola on Twitter @nicola_frampton and Student Minds @StudentMindsOrg.

Over the last 18 months, higher education communities have faced the wide-reaching challenges and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in the shift to online learning and working, the forced closure of on-campus facilities and the cancellation of in-person activities and events such as graduation ceremonies and Freshers’ weeks. When lecture theatres first closed back in March 2020, few of us could have known how long the impacts of the pandemic would last, or the extent to which students’ lives would be disrupted. What we did know, however, was that what we were about to face could have significant mental health impacts, both in the short and long-term. 

As such, at Student Minds, we decided to take a step back as an organisation and commit ourselves to actively listen to university students and staff, so that we could build an accurate understanding of what higher education communities were experiencing. Though challenging, we saw this as vital in ensuring our approach and response was truly valuable to students. 

Over a year on, we have collated our learnings, reflections and recommendations into a report – University Mental Health: Life in a Pandemic. The report centres on the themes ‘Live, Learn, Work and Support’, with discussion topics including accommodation, finances, social connectedness, online learning and working, support provision, the BME experience of the last year, and women’s safety. It also includes the headline findings of our recent research with Alterline, which we conducted in April and May of 2021. Though much of the report focuses on the quantitative findings of this research, we also collected some rich and insightful qualitative data from the 1,100 students who completed the survey. As the recent HEPI report on the student voice outlines, quantitative and qualitative evidence must work in tandem. One without the other is never enough.

Loneliness and Isolation 

One of the most widely and deeply felt issues which we saw emerge was the loneliness and isolation students were experiencing due to COVID-19 restrictions and the negative impact this was having on mental health and wellbeing. Students told us: 

[My mental health and wellbeing] was fine in the first lockdown, it was only until I got to university where it started to decline. I felt isolated and lonely, I struggled to make friends and didn’t have anyone I really clicked with while everyone else seemed to be really good friends which made it worse.

Being isolated has made me feel very lonely, and the lack of any activities has not only seriously impacted on my physical health but my mental health too.

Not being able to socialise has had a huge impact on my mental health. I have felt lonely and isolated and have become depressed.

Not being able to physically go to campus and interact with people in person has had a monumental effect on my mental as well as my physical health. It’s made me feel isolated, lonely and that it’s groundhog day.

Even prior to the pandemic, we knew that student loneliness was an increasingly concerning issue, with research shedding light on the extent to which students feel lonely. It is unsurprising then, that legal restrictions on socialising and travel during the pandemic have almost certainly exacerbated this issue. Restrictions have been particularly difficult for students in particular, many of whom had to make difficult decisions around where and with whom to spend ‘lockdown’ periods. For some, this led to extended periods of feeling isolated from friends or family, which placed a strain on mental health and wellbeing. 

In the second lockdown, my mental health started to deteriorate again because of missing my family, who I haven’t seen in a year.

[My mental health and wellbeing has been impacted] pretty negatively. Mainly due to lack of personal interactions. I still live with my family but haven’t been able to see my friends in person.

[I’m] feeling very hopeless for many reasons. Distance from family and friends during the pandemic is really painful, this is the time when they really need me.

I am lonely and sad and I miss my family (I haven’t seen them since December 2019 before covid started).

I feel very isolated from friends and family as I haven’t seen many of them in over fourteen months.

Given that student loneliness has been shown to be ‘the strongest overall predictor of mental distress in the student population’, the deeply felt and widespread experiences of loneliness and isolation being reported by students is particularly concerning. Through our quantitative data, we found that 66 per cent of students have felt lonely or isolated since March 2020, clearly demonstrating the extent of the issue and supporting the strength of the theme coming through the qualitative responses. As such, we recommend universities and students’ unions provide increased funding and support for student-led activities in order to facilitate the establishment and maintenance of social spaces and support networks. 

Uncertainty 

Another theme which emerged through the qualitative responses in our survey was the impact of uncertainty. As we reflected on our findings, we noted that for many uncertainty is to anxiety what petrol is to a flame. It was clear that students were feeling a heightened sense of anxiety due to the uncertainty of the situation, coupled with a lack of clear guidance and often-moving goal posts. Students told us: 

[I have] felt very anxious and sometimes alone, uncertainty about future causing more anxiety and distraction to routine also feeds anxiety.

[I’ve felt] anxieties on when normalcy will resume and confusions due to the long uncertainties associated with the pandemic.

I feel more anxious and depressed as everything is very uncertain.

Stress more than usual about my study and social life. Feeling of uncertainty lots of the time. 

It’s been hard to not have normality and do what you want and when, especially with relationships, friends and education, as well and future career prospects such as placement opportunities, it makes me worry. 

[My mental health and wellbeing has been] worse in the sense of added stress, time away from people and being unsure about the future.

Of course, stress, fear and anxiety are all normal and expected emotional responses to the pandemic and its impacts. It is vitally important, however, that the Government, universities and students’ unions recognise the role that uncertainty plays in exacerbating stress and anxiety and take action to minimise this. Communications with students should be clear, timely and sensitive. In addition, we recommend that universities and students’ unions ensure that support services are culturally competent and equally accessible to all students, so that those who do need to access support can. Sadly, our research showed that this has not always been the case during the pandemic, with just 35 per cent of students in our survey agreeing that they’ve had the support they needed during COVID-19. Prevention and early intervention must also be prioritised and institutions must plan for the mental health impacts of the pandemic to outlast the pandemic itself. The uncertainty students face now is likely to continue to be felt as the future of higher education remains unclear – particularly in terms of approaches to teaching, learning and assessment. 

Academic Stress and Pressures 

A third theme we identified as being widely felt by students in our survey was the impact of academic stress and pressure during the pandemic. The disruption to education caused by COVID-19 and the subsequent restrictions on social mixing and travel resulted in students experiencing a range of unique and unanticipated challenges. Qualitative responses showed that students had struggled to adapt to online learning and were finding it difficult to produce the same volume of work at the level they felt they were capable of. Additionally, many were concerned that the changes to their education would leave them unprepared for their next steps (whether academically or into employment) and under-skilled. Students told us: 

[I’ve experienced] a lack of in-person teaching, and a lack of essential field trips (forming part of the skillset I need for my course). As a result, I feel distant from my lecturers and tutors, as well as worry that I do not have the skills I need to succeed in my second and third years.

Online learning has led me to struggling to keep on top of everything as it all feels distant, impersonal and you can’t get the help you need as there are no discussions in online classes, lecturers take days to reply to emails when you request help and there is no social aspect for anything meaning I am mentally drained.

The course I am doing is focused on practical, industry experience and due to the pandemic this has not occurred and I now worry that I am going to be entering the industry ill-equipped and unsure of what I should actually be doing in the work place.

I feel disengaged and haven’t learned anything that wasn’t already taught on a lower level. I feel unprepared for work afterwards. It has impacted my mental health significantly.

The pressure to produce results to the required level when you are in the house day after day on your own via self directed learning was excruciating at times.

The technical problems/limited resources but the expectation to still produce the same level of work is unjustifiable and putting undue stress on me and all students.

The strain of completing a university degree during a pandemic cannot be understated. Current students have been expected to quickly adapt to new methods of learning and assessment – and in 2020/21 in particular have not always been given the reassurances of no-detriment or ‘safety net’ policies. Evidently and understandably, students are concerned about what they may have missed and how this might impact their future career opportunities. This was reflected further in our survey when we asked students to select their top three concerns for the next sixth months, from a wide range of issues 46 per cent selected ‘performing well in coursework, assessments or exams’, 21 per cent selected ‘keeping up with study commitments’ and 20 per cent selected ‘my employment prospects after university’. Thus, in order to support students to succeed in their education despite the challenges of the pandemic, we recommend that universities co-produce approaches to pedagogy wherever possible, while also taking into consideration the unique and individual needs of students by ensuring these approaches are flexible. Professor Dilly Fung outlines how best to involve students in co-designing pedagogy and curricula in the HEPI collection on the student voice. Further to this, steps should also be taken to tackle digital poverty, to ensure that all students have the equipment and resources they need to continue their education, especially while significant proportions of teaching and assessment are delivered online. 

Looking forwards

Overall, it is clear that the pandemic has impacted students’ mental health and wellbeing in a number of ways. The pressure of completing a university degree while feeling isolated from usual support networks and against a backdrop of uncertainty will likely have lasting impacts on this cohort of students. It is therefore vital that as a sector we ensure the appropriate support, mitigations and opportunities are in place to enable students to learn, grow and thrive in a post-pandemic world.

Student Space run by Student Minds, is here to help students find the support that they need during coronavirus. With access to dedicated support services, information and advice, student stories and a university support search to help them navigate student life right now.

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