The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic saw all UK universities put into lockdown in Spring 2020. These unexpected circumstances introduced a wave of virtual and online learning for students, very different from their usual face-to-face encounters. As a result, concerns about the mental health of university students have grown.
The lifting of the lockdown and the return at the start of the new term in autumn 2020 has brought an additional level of strain – with many students contracting the disease and being locked down in their accommodation1.
Although the return was closely managed with universities implementing new restrictions and regulations for those attending including the creation of ‘social bubbles’2. The social bubble whereby students live and study with others on their course or year in order to reduce the COVID-19 risk proved to be more immediately necessary than was initially anticipated as so many students were quickly struck down on their return to university. Many students experienced a strain on their mental health as a result and the long-term impact of ongoing ‘blended’ education, which utilises a combination of online lectures with smaller groups of face-to-face tutorials, is as yet unclear3.
Prior to the pandemic, universities had the technology in place for virtual learning, but never had the push to dive into it. So COVID-19 has given them the impetus.
However, a recent survey4 found that nearly all UK institutions aim to provide some type of in- person teaching alongside online. This includes smaller groups of teaching provided in person with student facilities such as libraries and learning support still available to students. Many institutions are also offering in-person social opportunities to students, such as outside events and wellbeing and sporting activities “in line with government and public health guidance”.
Many students go to University to experience the social events and the community that is developed within the organisation over their time spent there. Evidence emerging since the start of the 2020 academic year is showing that students may even value social contact more than compliance with COVID-19 restrictions, as outbreaks have been linked to socialising and parties5.
A study carried out in late July 20206 found that 36% full-time students were more likely to report feelings of loneliness and hopelessness than the overall population. So it is possible that many young people who are not used to isolation and the introduction of online and remote working will sadly see an impact on their mental health as the pandemic progresses throughout this academic year.
Universities are focussing hugely on their students mental health in light of COVID-19 and don’t want the new ways of living, working and studying to have a negative impact on their welfare. In order to make sure of this an improved approach to mental health and wellbeing at universities has been set out by Universities UK7. Universities UK has published a refreshed version of its strategic framework, Stepchange, meaning that mental health and wellbeing is considered across every aspect of the university and is part of all practices, policies, courses and cultures.
Protecting student mental health is a duty that universities must take seriously – now more than ever. COVID-19 has demonstrated how a viral threat to life can cause knock on impacts to mental health with the student demographic likely to be one of the most vulnerable.
Implementing an appropriate risk management framework and risk monitoring system is one of the first steps to be taken and many institutions can leverage the learnings gained from the challenges of COVID-19 to ensure that going forward the management and prevention of serious mental health problems in the student body is addressed before it becomes a crisis.
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Published date: 19th November 2020
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