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“Falling Through The Cracks”: How The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Exacerbating The Mental Health Crisis At UK Universities

“Falling Through The Cracks”: How The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Exacerbating The Mental Health Crisis At UK Universities

There are fears mental health among students may worsen as many are isolated from friends and family

10 min read

Student representatives have warned that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will only worsen the mental health crisis that has gripped British universities in recent years.

“There was a mental health crisis across universities prior to the pandemic,” said Sara Khan, NUS vice president for equality and liberation. 

“Students were not being given adequate support or access to mental health services, and the pandemic has only exacerbated these issues.”

Statistics from the past decade paint a poor picture of the state of mental health provisions across higher education.

There was a fivefold increase in first-year students reporting a mental health problem in the 10 years to 2016, according to a recent IPPR study, and 94% of higher education institutions claimed to have seen a rise in demand for counselling services over the past five years.

The result has been widespread reports of long waits for support services, lack of funding, inconsistencies in approach across the sector, and significant gaps in NHS provision. 

And the cost has sometimes been tragic—2015 saw a record number of deaths by suicide among students, representing a 79% rise since 2007.

The crisis came into the spotlight in 2018 after it was revealed that at least 11 students at the University of Bristol had died by suspected suicide in just 18 months.

James Murray, whose son Ben committed suicide at the university in 2016, said he feared the next crisis in university mental health was already on the horizon. 

If we can't physically see somebody to spot the signs because they're working remotely, then we've got a potential crisis on our hands

- James Murray, father of Ben Murray who committed suicide as a student in 2016

“I think the first thing is to recognise that, sadly, the stats tell us that students are most vulnerable at this time of year. The highest peak in suicides is in January,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.

“And we know from pre-Covid days that there were 95 student deaths in 2016. And one in five students has suicidal thoughts, ideation, that doesn't necessarily lead to suicide, but it makes them vulnerable. 

“Given that two-thirds of the suicides are unknown to support, if we can't physically see somebody to spot the signs because they're working remotely, then we've got a potential crisis on our hands. January is the crunch month and I'd like to see more action.”

Steps were being taken by the government late last year to remedy the situation, including supporting a sector-backed University Mental Health Charter, which set out best practice and recognised institutions demonstrating it. 

But much of this progress has been hindered by the ongoing pandemic, and many have criticised the government for advocating the return of students to university campuses, only for them to be met with online-only classes, limits on social activities and the threat of coronavirus quarantines.


University lockdown Thousands of students across the UK were told to self-isolate due to coronavirus (Image: PA)


“The decision to encourage students back to campuses was motivated by income over the welfare of students,” Ms Khan said.

“The marketised system of higher education has meant that universities were forced to prioritise tuition fees over the safety of their students, in order to secure their future sustainability. 

“This is completely unacceptable and has led to a complete lack of consideration of the effect that this would have on students.”

How this social isolation could impact the mental health of young people this academic year is one of the biggest areas of concern, said Sophia Hartley, welfare officer at Leeds University Union (LUU).

She told PoliticsHome: “Many students in Leeds have already had to experience a two-week isolation period which naturally lends itself to low mood, anxiety around leaving the house and feeling closed off from the outside world.”

“All students want is to be heard. This can sometimes feel like an impossible task when you are one voice amongst a group of almost forty thousand. However, it is so important that students feel like their needs are met.”

Though the university had been able to expand the capacity of its services, said Katie Hughes, LUU’s deputy head of help and support, they were seeing many more students struggling with the new normal. 

Nightline reported triple the number of calls relating to loneliness or problems with friends and family between March and April this year

“What we are hearing is that students who have previously been able to manage their mental health are finding that the strategies they’ve used before aren’t currently an option, for example seeing friends and family, taking part in group sports activities etc., so they are reaching out to try and find alternative ways,” she explained.

Statistics published by Nightline—a student-run listening service operating at universities across the UK—tell a similar story. 

Their phone lines reported triple the number of calls relating to loneliness or problems with friends and family between March and April this year, as well as double the number of calls related to academic stress.

No data is available yet for the current academic year, but according to Beth Scahill, coordinator of Nottingham University’s Nightline, a similar trend was playing out on their service.

“We've seen more use out of our phone lines than actually through our instant messaging service,” she said. 

“More people have been calling us rather than messaging us, which I thought was quite interesting because it seems people are missing their human contact and sometimes it's nicer to hear someone's voice than to see a message.”


University lockdown There are concerns about the impact of social isolation may have on young people (Image: PA)


The universities contacted by PoliticsHome reported that they had been able to offer expanded and/or adapted mental health provisions, such as delivering one-to-one counselling via Zoom or setting up digital support groups to help struggling students.

But, there were still accounts of young people who had seen therapy services disrupted due to the pandemic, or had struggled to access support when needed.

One student said she had been offered three mindfulness sessions in April by her university while suffering poor mental health, but had them cancelled after one appointment as the counsellor administering them had been furloughed.

Meanwhile, an undergraduate at a different institution said the counselling service took four weeks to reply to him at the height of lockdown, only for them to say they were unable to offer any sessions.

And, as students returned for the new school year, concerns were raised after thousands of students across the UK were forced to self-isolate regardless of whether they had symptoms of coronavirus. 

Undergraduates at Manchester Metropolitan University, where 1,700 people were required to quarantine in late September, complained they felt “neglected” and were struggling to access food.

Even before the pandemic, students were placed on long waiting lists for access to mental health services – we cannot have students falling through the cracks now.

- Shadow minister for mental health Rosena Allin-Khan

Shadow minister for mental health Rosena Allin-Khan is now leading calls for the government to step in and ensure universities have support provisions in place.

Writing for The House Live earlier this month, she said young people were facing a “unique set of challenges during the pandemic” resulting in a “mental health crisis ready to explode”. Her proposed measures, however, are yet to be brought forward. 

“Even before the pandemic, students were placed on long waiting lists for access to mental health services – we cannot have students falling through the cracks now,” she told PoliticsHome.

“The Education Secretary acknowledged that the situation on campuses will affect the mental health of students. However, the Government has failed to act on our request for a package of support for students’ mental health.

“Students cannot be forgotten in the crisis–their mental health and wellbeing depends on it.”

Meanwhile, NUS vice president Ms Khan said universities needed show greater flexibility and offer more support for students self-isolating

“Universities should be providing care packages with food, household products, wellbeing materials and general necessities, and targeted educational and mental health support, with facilitation of social activity,” she added.

“The government needs to fully fund our education and healthcare systems, otherwise the student mental health crisis, which existed pre-Covid-19 and is only being exacerbated now, will persist.”

My students are telling me now, 'please don't call quite so often we're fine'. That's not the point. The point is keeping in contact with them

- Professor Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England

For now, many universities are focusing on how they can ensure the mental wellbeing of their students within existing resources. 

Professor Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England (UWE), said education leaders should prioritise keeping students in contact with their lecturers and tutors and giving them avenues to reach out if they need help/ 

“At my university, we have a 24-7 serious concerns helpline. And that helpline is available for parents or friends to raise concerns about their loved ones or friends. Students can also access it as well,” he told the Today programme.

“That's been hugely important to make sure that we capture people early and continue to encourage students to call out and to ask for help.”

UWE is also using data analytics, he explained, to identify and understand when students were starting to disengage from university life so they could be contacted by university staff.

“Covid-19 has changed everybody's life. So welfare calls into students who are self-isolating are hugely important, and they have to be regular," he continued.

“In fact, my students are telling me now, 'please don't call quite so often we're fine'. That's not the point. The point is keeping in contact with them.”

Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity Mind, had a similar message, urging young people struggling at university to talk to someone if they felt they needed help.

“It can be hard to know how to ask for help, or where to turn to. But if you notice changes to your thoughts, feelings and behaviours that last longer than two weeks, keep coming back, or affect your day-to-day life, tell someone you trust as soon as possible,” he said. 

“If you feel you can’t talk to a GP, open up to a friend, family member or think about talking to an academic supervisor, tutor, or a welfare staff member, who can help get you the support you need.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said:  “Protecting the mental health of students continues to be a priority, which is why the Universities Minister convened a task force of higher education and health representatives to address the issues students are facing at this time.

“We have been clear that universities have a responsibility to support their students and many have bolstered their mental health and welfare services during the pandemic, particularly to support those students who are self-isolating.

“In response to the pandemic, we have worked closely with the  Office for Students to provide up to £3 million to fund the mental health platform, Student Space, in addition to over £9 million of government funding to leading mental health charities.”


Need support? You can contact Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.

Mind’s confidential Infoline is available Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393. Mind’s website also has information on how to cope with student life and how to manage feelings related to coronavirus.

If students would like to find out if their university is covered by a Nightline, and what services they're currently providing, they can check by visiting their website

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