Opinion

Student mental health is plummeting without guidance or support

It is not enough for universities to run ‘wellbeing workshops’ and yoga classes, we need professional help, writes Darcey Edkins.

A young woman sits with her head in her hands, looking at a laptop

Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

One in six children are now estimated to have a mental health problem. That’s an increase of 50 per cent in the last three years, according to the latest Children’s Commissioner report. But despite these numbers, only four per cent of children had access to mental health services in 2019/20. The majority waited weeks or even months for treatment. 

It is no surprise that the combination of school closures and another nationwide lockdown has taken a huge toll on children’s mental health. Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, called it “widely accepted” that lockdowns have had a “detrimental effect on the mental health of many children”, urging the Government to plan for how schools will reopen.

But children are not the only young people suffering an increase in mental health problems as a result of the pandemic. A recent study by the Office for National Statistics found 63 per cent of university students have reported a worsening in their mental health since the start of the academic year, compared with 57 per cent in November.

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As a finalist at the University of Warwick, I am very aware of the impact of another lockdown on the student mental health crisis in the UK. Having struggled with mental health problems in the past, it saddens me to see so many young people without access to support. 

Since the start of the pandemic, student suicide rates have risen at universities across the UK. In October, eight students died in university halls, with the National Union of Students calling for ‘urgent action’ from the Government to provide greater support to those struggling. When the Prime Minister first announced this third lockdown, he failed to make any mention of university students, however.

Being isolated from friends and family at such a critical point in our education is extremely dangerous for student mental health. Before the pandemic, I was excited to attend classes and write essays on subjects that really interested me. Now, thanks to the lockdown, I am struggling to find the motivation to even get out of bed in the morning. It is a vicious cycle of attempting to do work, finding that I have no motivation, then beating myself up for not doing anything. I am far from the only one.

Writing an essay on The Romantics or submitting a lab report hardly seems an appropriate thing to focus your mind

It can be an incredibly stressful experience working from home, but for students paying over £9000 in tuition fees each year, the consequences of online learning are much greater. In shared accommodation, when the only private space is a bedroom, there are endless distractions.

The fear of missing out as friends or family socialise while you are forced to write an essay is a difficult feeling to process. Many students have left home for the first time and have not always developed the skills and self-discipline which experience brings. Separating work from leisure is almost impossible to achieve when those mindsets are forced to co-exist in one place.

The constant influx of new stories about the pandemic can also have a severe impact on your mental health. In a state of global crisis, it is hard to focus on anything else other than the physical health of those closest to you. Writing an essay on The Romantics or submitting a lab report hardly seems an appropriate thing to focus your mind on when there are so many more important things to worry about. 

A study by the Office for National Statistics found that 37 per cent are ‘dissatisfied’ or ‘very dissatisfied’ with their learning, compared with 29 per cent in November. It also reported that the average life satisfaction score for all students in January was 4.8 out of 10 compared to 6.4 for the general population. This is hardly surprising given the lack of support from government and universities for students.

Despite calls for a ‘no-detriment’ policy to be implemented to protect students’ grades during the lockdown, the Russell Group has already announced that it is not “necessary” this year. The fact that universities are so reluctant to introduce a no-detriment policy shows they have little – if any – concern for their students’ mental health.

If A-Level and GCSE exams are cancelled, why should university students be expected to take them? Exam season is often the most mentally challenging part of the academic year. After a year spent studying alone in living rooms or bedrooms, asking students to then take their exams in a shared household makes a mockery of the £9,000 many have paid for the privilege. 

Another problem for students is the wasted money spent on university accommodation. Some universities have announced “rent waivers” for those living on campus, while others have refused to offer any form of compensation. As someone who rents a private flat one town over from campus it is highly unlikely that I will receive any financial help during the next lockdown. Instead, I must pay over £400 a month for an empty flat while I live and work from home and thousands of other students are doing the same. It is not surprising that some have chosen to break lockdown rules and travel back to university when the government offers no financial rebates for those struggling to make private rent payments.

The Government must find ways to better support young people at all stages of their education during lockdown. Mental health services should be made more readily available. If not, there will be terrible consequences for student mental health. 

It is not enough for universities to run ‘wellbeing workshops’ and yoga classes, we need professional help. Mitigating circumstances should be given to every student to ensure that our grades are protected against the pressures of lockdown. And the Government should start addressing students directly in official announcements. Show us that you are willing to listen to our problems and make the necessary changes to protect our physical and mental wellbeing. 

If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, you can contact the Samaritans on 116 123 or at samaritans.org.

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