Student mental health during Covid-19: the silent pandemic
As the coronavirus pandemic surged across the UK, another pandemic was simmering away behind closed doors. Benedict Thompson investigates the detrimental effects of Covid-19 on the mental health and wellbeing of students.
A study has found that 57 per cent of students have experienced a worsening in their mental health and wellbeing. The figure was obtained by the Office for National Statistics in 2020 which also found that 53 per cent of students also reported being dissatisfied with their social experience. There were on average 2,032 students per university who sought support for their mental health in the year 2020/21, an increase of nearly four per cent on the previous year. The increase correlates to the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting student’s studies and socialising as many students were forced into lockdown in university halls or prevented from joining their first year. Meanwhile, the UK’s largest online student forum, Student Room, saw a jump of 87 per cent in the number of suicide-related posts needing support during the first week of national lockdown in March. But some have reached breaking point.
A BBC investigation found that during the first lockdown there were at least 10 suspected student suicides at UK universities. The investigation also found that at least 17 additional suspected student suicides after the first lockdown in 2020. Harry Armstrong Evans, a 21-year-old student from Cornwall in his third year, was believed to have killed himself after a poor set of exam results. An inquest into his death has found that Harry’s mental health declined during the lockdown. Harry’s death has raised questions over the lack of academic and wellbeing support by universities. Less than a month before his death last year, Harry had told his personal tutor that isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic had affected his mental health and performance in his studies. But neither the academic nor wellbeing team spoke to Harry face to face after his email was sent, even after a request from his mother. Harry’s mother Alice told the inquest that her son had not understood he could do re-takes or repeat his final year. Harry’s mother Alice told the inquest, “If Harry had had all that knowledge, he would felt wanted”, she said. “I blame the academic staff. I blame the welfare too”.
A BBC investigation found that during the first lockdown there were at least 10 suspected student suicides at UK universities
This comes after at least 11 Exeter students have reportedly died by suicide in the past six years. University chiefs have warned that they cannot deal with the student mental health crisis on their own. Institutions now invest huge sums of money and devote vast amounts of resources to supporting students’ welfare and wellbeing.
However, Dr Tim Bradshaw, head of the Russell Group of Universities, has said that supporting student’s mental health is not something that universities can do “in isolation”. Dr Bradshaw has said that the NHS should be the first point of contact for students struggling with their mental health, but universities should also play a key role in supporting students during treatment.
“Universities have also recognised this is increasingly not a challenge that can be dealt with in isolation and are seeking out new collaborations with other universities, third sector groups and NHS services to try and make sure that when help is needed the individual gets it from the right organisation”, said Bradshaw.
University chiefs have warned that they cannot deal with the student mental health crisis on their own.
According to Russel Group, their universities have established formal partnerships with local NHS services so universities can recognise whether a student has accessed mental health support. Meanwhile, some universities have formed regional networks with other universities to offer student support services. Bradshaw went on to say, “Several universities embraced web chat or text support, so students could always reach out to someone online or through their phone”.
But this will be hard without government funding. Data shared by Universities UK revealed that the government has provided only an extra £2 per student in further education for mental health. And many argue that universities are still not doing enough to protect the wellbeing of their students, even after Covid-19 lockdowns.
The University of Exeter is not the only institution to be criticised for their lack of support. In May, the University of Bristol was found liable for legal breaches that led to a student’s suicide and ordered to pay £50,000 in damages. Meanwhile, last October, an inquest heard that the University of Warwick should have been more “proactive” after a student took his own life after disengaging with his business course during lockdown. Three days after the student was found dead, a letter arrived informing him that Warwick had “no choice but to suspend his studies”. Stuart Croft, the University of Warwick’s vice chancellor, said that the university has since changed its procedure for contacting students if they unexpectedly miss exams, fail to meet deadlines or do not respond to emails from the university.
Each case is different, but each one exposes the fragility of student mental health.