A slow recovery: student wellbeing and Covid
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected student mental health?
At the beginning of 2022, Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity, conducted research to understand how university students are doing after almost two years of disruption. The findings suggest that many are struggling to manage their mental wellbeing.
In this guest blog, Nicola Frampton, Insight Manager at Student Minds, shares the key findings from the research and why we need a whole university approach to supporting student mental health.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Student Minds has been engaged in listening and research activity to fully understand the impacts on university students and their mental health. Our latest research, conducted in January 2022 with 1,000 university students, sheds light on how students were feeling at the beginning of the calendar year after almost two years of disruption to their education, social lives and living arrangements.
Life satisfaction and loneliness
Our findings suggest that many university students are struggling to manage their mental wellbeing. We found respondents’ average life satisfaction scores (6.2 out of 10) to be disproportionately low when compared with the average for adults in Great Britain (ONS, 2022).
Respondents also reported high rates of loneliness – a strong predictor of mental distress in the student population (Hughes and Spanner, 2019) – with 52% saying they had often felt lonely or isolated during the Autumn term 2021.
The issue of social connection was also clear in other areas of our findings. Only 40% of students said they felt part of a community at university, whilst just 45% reported feeling part of a strong group of friends.
Though it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions without pre-pandemic data to compare to, we believe this represents one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic and the opportunities that students missed to form friendships, develop social skills and build self-confidence.
Mental health issues and support
Our findings also show that large numbers of university students may be experiencing mental health issues. 59% of respondents told us that they were currently experiencing a mental health issue, and 29% said they had received a diagnosis from a healthcare professional.
We also found that 43% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘I need support to manage my own wellbeing’, but just 27% of respondents had actually accessed support for their mental health and wellbeing during Autumn term 2021.
With figures this high, it’s vital that universities have effective support structures in place to ensure students can access help when they need it. It’s also important that students are aware of the support available and that barriers to accessing it are minimised.
A whole university approach
Another key finding from our research is the impact that the overall university experience can have on students’ wellbeing. In September 2021, in our second wave of research, we asked students what impact they thought returning to university would have on their wellbeing. 64% of respondents expected a positive impact, and 26% expected a negative impact.
Then, when we asked students in our January 2022 survey what impact being at university had actually had on their mental health, we found that 42% experienced a positive impact, whilst 38% experienced a negative impact.
We also found that the academic side of university is the greatest cause for concern amongst students. 81% of respondents said they were concerned about their academic performance, whilst 74% were worried about managing their time and 73% were concerned about keeping up with study commitments. In addition, academic/learning support was the most common form of support students accessed during the Autumn term 2021.
It’s therefore clear that in order to create Higher Education communities where students can truly thrive, we must take a whole university approach to mental health. This means including both adequately resourced, effective and accessible mental health services and proactive interventions.
Collectively, we must develop university cultures and environments which fundamentally support good mental health, and this is even more important now as we begin to recognise and respond to the lasting impacts of the pandemic.