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.
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.
Amanda (She/Her) is an MA Public Policy student, and a BA History graduate from the UK. She was an international Citizen Service (ICS) volunteer with Restless Development in Nepal in 2017. This experience sparked an interest in working towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. She is particularly interested in issues relating to health, discrimination, and access to education. Alongside her Master’s degree and work with Restless Development, Amanda is also a policy advisor for a mental health charity. After her Master’s degree, she would like to continue her work in research and policy in the charity sector.