A venn diagram describing how student mental health is affected

Isolation and burnout: Student Mental health amidst the pandemic.

As a result of COVID-19, university students have suffered from a lack of social connection and an unhealthy study-life balance, taking a serious toll on their mental health, say Amanda Joy and Jasmine Serena.

As part of Restless Development’s Build Back Better programme, we conducted research through surveys and interviews with 43 students in the UK. Here’s what we found. 

Stability requires support

The experience of university for some students with mental health problems was improved through online learning and greater flexibility. For a number of students, living in their family home allowed for closer connection with their support networks. Also, some students were able to continue paid work alongside their studies. 

This positive experience, however, has not been the case for the majority of students.  Restrictions on movement and the lack of social interaction with peers, has led to overwhelming loneliness. During an unprecedented global crisis people need strong support networks more than ever. Students living in university accommodation felt isolated, as they could not meet anyone, including their own families. It is the responsibility of universities to address wider pastoral issues, such as helping their students connect.

Zooming out

The COVID-19 pandemic has been extraordinarily stressful. There were additional burdens including a lack of employment causing financial strain and the feeling that young people were unfairly blamed for a rise in COVID-19 infections.

The structure of online learning aggravated student mental health, with the feeling  that universities had prioritised the delivery of supposedly sufficient online teaching over their wellbeing. Working from home, in an inadequate environment, impacted productivity and blurred the boundaries between studying and relaxation. Back to back online classes did not allow for breaks, contributing to burnout. Similarly, extended online exam times generated pressure to work continuously, resulting in essential activities – such as eating and sleeping – being neglected. Furthermore, the additional emotional and mental strains of juggling personal and familial health with supporting others impacted academic performance.

At the same time, in-person university societies and sports activities, which in pre-pandemic times allowed students to relieve stress, all stopped. This left students with little escape from the multitude of stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Universities have forgotten that they provide a holistic experience. It is not all about teaching, but also trying new activities, building a strong social network, and honing vital life skills.

Towards a holistic approach

Educational institutions should ensure that they consider student mental health and wellbeing when they structure their online courses and assessments. Universities must also place greater importance on student welfare services and psychological support. These could include, but are not limited to, informal online spaces for students to connect with coursemates, increased (online) extra-curricular activities, volunteering, society events, and helplines.  

Students should also be able to feel that it is okay to engage with mental health services. The general stigma surrounding mental health needs to be addressed – not just at university, but in wider society. Through a culture of openness, university students and staff need to feel they have a safe space to discuss their mental health. After all, students are the future, so this is a vital investment.

This is part 2 of a 2 part series on the UK university experience during COVID19: Read part 1 “How COVID19 has unequally transformed the university experience” now.

Take Action

If you are a UK resident you can sign this petition to Fund additional mental health support services for university students.

For resources, please visit: 

If you’re struggling with your mental health or want to learn more please check out these useful resources and support lines.

Mind: https://www.mind.org.uk 
Anxiety UK: www.anxietyuk.org.uk 
Bipolar UK: www.bipolaruk.org.uk 
CALM: https://www.thecalmzone.net 
Men’s Health Forum: www.menshealthforum.org.uk 
Mental Health Foundation: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk 
Young Minds: https://youngminds.org.uk 
Nightline Association: https://www.nightline.ac.uk 
Citizens Advice: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk 
Heads Together: https://www.headstogether.org.uk 
The Mix: https://www.themix.org.uk 
Childline: https://www.childline.org.uk 
Samaritans: https://www.samaritans.org 
Rethink Mental Illness: https://www.rethink.org 
No Panic: www.nopanic.org.uk 
OCD UK: www.ocduk.org 
PAPYRUS: www.papyrus-uk.org 
SANE: www.sane.org.uk/support
Beat (eating disorders): www.b-eat.co.uk
Kooth: https://www.kooth.com 
Unmind: https://www.mytutor.co.uk/blog/mytutor-unmind-managing-uncertainty/
Further lists of resources: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/ 

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Isolation and burnout: Student Mental health amidst the pandemic.

by Amanda Joy Reading time: 3 min