News Writer Emily Lewis analyses the impact the pandemic had on students’ mental health.

Written by Emily Lewis
Images by Tim Gouw

It has been widely accepted in the UK that young adults have been hugely impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, from job losses in more volatile sectors, to education anxiety, and loneliness from unnatural isolation and the subsequent disconnection from peers. University students have found themselves either beginning a new transition period in unprecedented circumstances, or continuing study during these years of disruption and the unknown. Despite lockdowns ending in early 2021, university students have shown to be struggling mentally more so than in 2020. With crucial evidence from The Mix – the UK’s leading digital youth charity – and an interview with Birmingham Nightline, a mental health society at the University of Birmingham, this feature will explore the developing issue of student mental health. In particular, this article attempts to show the burgeoning demand for support and the need by universities and the wider government to take young adult mental health seriously.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) began to collect statistics on the ‘behaviours, plans, opinion and well-being of higher-education students’ under the Student COVID-19 Insights Survey (SCIS). Under the most recent survey, released on June 17th, 2021, approximately 3 in 10 students reported engagement with mental health services since the autumn 2020 term. The Mix UK also provides more evidence for high levels of engagement with mental health services amongst students. As a free and confidential multi-channel service charity for under-25s, they offer support to young adults on challenges they are facing through expert and peer guidance. In their fourth edition of their helpline trends report, the charity showcases some alarming statistics. Assessing two periods in 2021; Q1, 1 January to 31 March, and Q2, 1 April to 30 June, the report shows that anxiety, feelings, emotions, including suicidal thoughts and educational worries, were often mentioned. For example, 16% of the young people contacting the helpline between April and June 2021 mentioned thoughts of suicide, compared to 13.2% the previous year. Feelings of anger have also increased since 2020, with further body image troubles reaching the highest levels in the last two years; the number of conversations increased from 0.3% in Jan-March of 2020 to 3.8% in Jan-March of 2021.

In July 2021, the Office for Students (OfS) alerted their concern for university and young adult college students’ mental wellbeing, arguing more needed to be done. The Universities Minister for England, Michelle Donelan, has reported that universities have access to up to £256m to help look after student welfare, stressing students should be appropriately supported. Redbrick spoke to Birmingham Nightline, a student-run mental health society at the University of Birmingham, to ascertain their views on this issue on a UK campus. Birmingham Nightline is a ‘confidential, non-judgemental and non-directive listening and information service run by students, for students..

R: As a student society at the University of Birmingham, how have requests for your help changed, if at all, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

N: ‘It has been clear to us over the past eighteen months that, overall, student mental health has been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Whilst it is difficult to make a direct comparison, as our remote COVID-19 service operates at only 21% of our full service (8pm-1am, Instant Messenger and email only), we seem to have received a noticeable increase in contacts since the pandemic began, suggesting that more students are struggling. 

we seem to have received a noticeable increase in contacts since the pandemic began, suggesting that more students are struggling

‘Most notably, we have seen feelings of loneliness and isolation increase in our contacts; this has continued even now that ‘normal life’ seems to have resumed, which tells us that the impact on student mental health is one that persists beyond lockdown measures. Also, overall, nightlines across the country have seen an increase in contacts about isolation. We have seen a significant surge in suicidal ideation at the beginning of this academic year. 

‘Most of our contacts just want someone to talk to about how they are feeling, or a space to rant or vent, which is exactly what Nightline is here for, and we are grateful to be able to provide that to anybody who may need it.’

R: Have you felt the society has been valued by the university, in the work it seeks to do for student mental health? 

N: ‘Sadly, we have not been able to be there for students as much as we had hoped to be over the past eighteen months. It was incredibly difficult to be closed for an extended period of time knowing how much students were struggling, and that we weren’t able to support them through so much of that time. 

‘It was challenging to not have the level of support we needed when we were seeing an increased need for support from students, but we are endlessly grateful to the National Nightline Association for their constant support, patience and kindness while we navigate a complicated transition to a new stakeholder. We sincerely hope matters will soon be fully resolved, and that we will be able to begin the process of reopening our full service with the support of our new stakeholder. 

‘Most importantly, we were so glad that we were able to reopen in time for welcome week, and the amount of students who have contacted us in the last month has absolutely reinforced the importance of our service. We are so proud of our volunteers for working tirelessly to support the student population, and we hope to continue raising awareness so that any student who needs a listening ear knows where to find ours.’

It could therefore be said that student mental health is at a crisis point. It is clear from the statistics and interview shown in this article that mental health is an escalating issue, with more students seeking aid for wellbeing concerns. Yet, student societies have faced questionable support, despite the millions stated by the government side-lined for these types of welfare needs. As the pandemic continues and we slowly move into a world less concerned with the immediate effects of COVID-19 and rather the long-term problems it has caused, the UK as a country has a duty of care for the young adults in our society suffering from the turmoil of the present. 

mental health is an escalating issue, with more students seeking aid for wellbeing concerns

Holly Turner, the Campaigns and Communications Manager at The Mix, highlights this very point: ‘At The Mix we have witnessed first-hand just how difficult life has been for students since the start of the pandemic. Coping with the isolation caused by lockdown, as well as the pressures of online learning and the disruption to their education and social lives has meant that many students have struggled with poor mental health. We need to make sure that students are given the support they need to deal with the ongoing change and uncertainty of post-lockdown life and encourage them to reach out for help when they need it.’

The Mix’s support page can be found here

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