As part of University Mental Health Day 2021, our Research and Policy Officer Erica Holt-White discusses how many students have had their mental health impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.

As we start to slowly head out of lockdown, the prospect of at least some students returning to university campuses is getting closer. But it is fair to say that not all students will be heading back with a spring in their step; they have experienced over a year studying largely away from campus and apart from their friends. The last few months have been difficult for many young people, experiencing both social isolation and the economic effects of the pandemic.  

Concerningly, there has been a significant rise in mental health problems for young people, with 18-24 year olds three times more likely to report that they were not enjoying day-to-day activities in April last year than they were in 2017/18. The proportion feeling unhappy or depressed has risen by 15 percentage points (43% in April 2020 compared to 28% in 2017/18). As part of this group, university students have also been affected; nearly three quarters (73%) of students said that their mental health declined during lockdown. There is widespread concern about the pandemic’s legacy on the mental health of young people of all ages.  

Today marks University Mental Health Day 2021, which aims to bring the university community together to make mental health a priority and create ongoing changes to the future of student mental health. The campaign encourages students to share their experiences and collaborate to find solutions to improving mental health at universities. Even though students cannot gather in person, they are working together virtually, and rightly so. 

A large scale impact 

In our recent report covering the pandemic’s impact on university life skillswe found that 70% of students are currently concerned about their mental health and wellbeing, with students from working class backgrounds more likely to be concerned than middle-class students (74% vs 68% respectively)71% of students were also concerned about being able to take part in university social life, whilst 64% were concerned about classes being online rather than face to face. 

The university experience has been significantly different this year, with participation in extra-curricular activities like sports and student societies declining more for disadvantaged students. There is also continuing uncertainty over returning to campuses. Missing out on these activities, as well as being isolated either at home or in student accommodation whilst studying, is likely to have contributed to increased levels of loneliness in young people; in November last yearalmost half of 18-24 year olds reported feeling lonely during lockdown This is particularly concerning as research suggests loneliness in those aged under 21 is associated with the development of longer-term mental health problems in later life, like depression.  

There have also been considerable impacts for young people entering the labour market. At the start of the pandemicwe found that 46% of undergraduates felt that the pandemic had a negative impact on their ability to gain graduate employment; including 18% having had work experience placements cancelled or postponed. This highlighted the difficult job market that graduates will face this year and in years to come.  

As well as this, it’s not just current university students who are affected. Young people have faced twice the rate of work-related problems compared to work-age adults overall; 1 in 3 have been furloughed or lost their job. These effects have negative repercussions on mental health, as unemployment (particularly during lockdowns) leads to prolonged times at home isolated, impacting social wellbeing, and can create anxiety regarding having a secure income for the future. IndeedThe Prince’s Trust recently found that 64% of NEET young people feel anxious ‘always’ or ‘often, compared to a (still concerningly high) average of 56%.  

Time for change  

While there is excitement to return to normality, many young people may be finding the prospect quite scary. After losing their job or not finding work during the pandemic, students may be feeling that keeping up with rent and socialising with friends that they have missed for so long will be unaffordable. Additionally, for first year students who have not yet met many people studying their course, and for those in other years who have decided to live at home during the pandemicheading back to inperson provision with the prospect of feeling lonely and isolated may be daunting.  

It also must not be forgotten that the long periods of isolation from other people and the outside world, as well as substantial changes to the nature of daily life, have also impacted those with pre-existing mental health problemsThis could include issues that perhaps individuals were on top of before the pandemic hit, but their progress has unfortunately regressed. For instance, the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has increased feelings of anxiety for those with existing mental health needs. 

However, awareness of these issues is increasing –  the Government has recently appointed Dr Alex George, a campaigner for children’s mental health, as Youth Mental Health Ambassador. He will help shape future mental health policy in schools, colleges and universitiesBut it’s clear that more support is needed. Recent Sutton Trust research found that while over half (52%) of students were happy with the pastoral support on offer, a sizeable proportion, 28% were unsatisfied. Many students are also under considerable financial strain, and while the government have allocated £70 million of additional funding for financial hardship to universities in Englandthis is much lower per student than funding allocations elsewhere in the UK, with more support needed.  

There is still not a confirmed date that students can expect to return to their lecture halls, but even when there is, the impacts of the pandemic are likely to be long lasting, and many students will still be experiencing mental health problems. Collaboration between the government, universities and young people is needed to fully support the mental health of students, not just this year, but into the future too. By supporting each other and working together, we can truly change the narrative about student mental healthallowing more young people to have a thriving university experience.  

There are many ways to get involved this University Mental Health Day, frosharing resources on social media to getting in touch with your university’s senior leaders, lobbying for change. If you’re looking for support with your mental health during the current crisis, organisations like Student Space and Young Minds are there 24 hours a day. Remember, you are not alone! 

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