It’s been the most trying time in recent history for the mental health and wellbeing of people in all communities on a global scale. As some countries, including the UK, take the first tentative footsteps back to some form of normality, we are only at the beginning of understanding the impact that the pandemic has had on mental health.
For reasons we’ll explore in more detail in this post, university students could be some of the hardest hit by this mental health crisis. Outside of the impact that the pandemic has had on our everyday lives, university students are going through unique time in their lives with additional challenges. The prospect of being away from your home and your loved ones if you live away at university, possibly even being a completely different country for international students, are all very prominent factors that could seriously impact the mental health of students across the globe.
Setting the scene
To understand mental health in university students, it’s important to contextualise this by looking at mental health in young people in general. According to a study by Kessler, Berglund, Demler, Jin, Merkingas and Walters, 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14, and 75% by the age of 24. Despite this, 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health disorders have had no appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.
Mental health in university students
The aforementioned statistics around mental health in young people are worrying, but they become even more troubling when we look at what happens when they attend university. A 2019 study by The Office for Students found that the provision for mental health in UK higher education institutions was lacking, and this was having a noticeable impact on the attainment, progression and continuation of students. Notably, in 2016/17, 86.8% of students with mental health conditions continued their studies beyond first year, compared to 90.2% of all undergraduates.
In 2017/18, graduates who reported a mental health condition were less likely to get a 2:1 or above. And in 2016/17, 69.2% of those with a mental health condition progressed into skilled work or further learning, compared with 73.1% of all undergraduates.
According to the same Office for Students study, certain ethnic groups are critically under-supported for mental health issues at university. In 2016/17, black full-time students who reported a mental health condition had the lowest continuation and attainment rates of any ethnic group – just 77.1% compared to 87.6% of white students, 88.4% of Asian students and 85.1% with mixed ethnicity. In addition, only 53% of black students with a mental health condition got a 2:1 or a 1st in 2017/18 compared with 79.8% of white students, 67.5% of Asian students and 77.5% of students with mixed ethnicity.
Notably, sexuality and gender identity were not included as part of this study. This in itself is troubling, as LGBTQ+ people are more at risk of mental health issues due to discrimination, isolation, homophobia and transphobia, as well as being consistently under-supported by the health services.
Mental health in university students during COVID-19
Research in this area is coming in thick and fast as we begin to understand the wider impact COVID-19 has had on society. One particular study, which looked at a group of university students in China, found that 25% of the sample reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety, positively correlated with increased concerns about academic delays, economic effects of the pandemic, and impacts on daily life. A survey by UK charity YoungMinds found that 83% of students felt pre-existing mental health conditions had worsened since the pandemic.
What can be done?
It’s very clear that mental health is an area that needs to be addressed in higher education – whether we’re in the midst of a global pandemic or not. Ignoring or sidelining mental health as an issue for students not only impacts their futures, but also that of the institution – who will see lower attainment, continuation and progression, as well as lack of diversity as result. This in turn impacts our wider society.
In an enlightening report for the IPPR – “Not by degrees: Improving student mental health in the UK’s universities”, Craig Thorley highlights the need for mental health to be a priority issue that is driven by a standards-based, whole-university approach, and subject to quality assurance and audit. He also points to the need for government-supported localised coalition and integration between universities and health services – and of course, more funding.
It’s clear that this is not just a practical issue but a cultural one – that in order for widespread change to occur, we as a society need to recognise the importance of supporting the mental health and wellbeing of students, and that should then inform policy, process and progress in higher education institutions and beyond.
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