How the pandemic has pushed universities to reimagine their wellbeing strategies
Concerns about student mental health have been a feature of university life for some time now. Even under normal circumstances, the stresses that come with university life can often be too much for some students to handle. The conditions of the pandemic have not only served to compound those anxieties but also given students a few extra to contend with.
Ordinarily, a big part of a university environment is the buzz on campus and the fulfilment in building life-long social networks. But students have been confined to their accommodation for much of the past academic year, which has created feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Many undergrads rely heavily on part-time work to subsidise their tuition too. With the pandemic bringing the retail and hospitality industries to a standstill, they’ve been left having to shoulder an even bigger financial burden than usual.
Online learning has been another contentious obstacle. Students and parents argue the standard of education is below that of in-person lectures, especially when courses are heavily geared towards practical assessments, like drama and medical degrees.
For students suffering with social engagement issues, virtual learning can be anxiety-inducing too. With multiple faces staring back at you, its format can overexaggerate a feeling of having to perform and discourage students from engaging and asking questions.
It also strips away non-verbal cues – so much of our communication relies on reading body language and gesture, especially for international students where English isn’t their first language. When you stack each of these factors on top of one another, there’s no wonder students are suffering so widely with their mental health.
But conversations around wellbeing are increasingly more normalised nowadays, and there are many more mental wellbeing support services available to students who are struggling.
Most universities now provide counselling, student advice services, support networks and other resources advertised on their website. There are also countless charities for students to lean on. UK student health charity Student Minds has launched a new support service called Student Space, specifically designed to help students navigate university life during the pandemic.
And it’s prompted universities to do the same. Kingston University, for example, runs a night-time support service in collaboration with the student union. It gives students access to highly trained volunteers outside of normal study hours.
However, mental wellbeing support isn’t just about the services available. It’s also about communicating an ethos at the university that encourages students to speak out when they’re feeling overwhelmed.
Universities UK recently had their say on the five key values universities should use to underpin their wellbeing strategy:
Universities that promote these values, or something similar, help to strip away the stigma attached to mental health and give students the confidence to seek out the support when they most need it.
The pandemic has been hard on the student body and it doesn’t look as though it’s going to fully relent until sometime into the next academic year. But it has served to test the robustness of university wellbeing strategies and forced institutions to think creatively about how their services can keep evolving.
Many of these new initiatives will live long after the pandemic eventually disappears and will hopefully mean universities are better prepared to support students in the future.
Published date: 19th April 2021
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