The mental anguish for students does not stop at the A-Level results row

Student Minds CEO Rosie Tressler OBE warns that the unique challenges faced by students in the upcoming "year like no other" requires more mental health support

A-Level results day is always a challenging time of year for prospective students. As
the rush of anticipation, excitement and sometimes disappointment makes its mark
on young people across the country, we know that this is just the start of their
journey into academic life and independence. A journey that, this year, will be like no
other.

With some students dealing with the pressure and uncertainty of clearing, results day
itself can feel incredibly intense. But once the dust settles, there’s a whole lot more
that students prepare for with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. These
experiences are, mostly, unique to higher education students.

University life simply isn’t the same as it was last year

Evidence suggests that life’s transition points are often when people can be most
likely to develop mental health difficulties. Even before the coronavirus pandemic
struck, many young people would be transitioning from one phase of life to the next
every September – an experience that might involve leaving friends and family
behind, moving in with strangers and managing your own home – and your finances
– for the first time. It’s fun, certainly, but it can also be incredibly daunting. However,
in the context of coronavirus, students are even more uncertain about what to
expect. This is the same for returning students as well as new students – university
life simply isn’t the same as it was last year.

The complications posed by social distancing only add to this pressure. Students
may be feeling isolated, being unable to socialise in the ways in which they are used
to. This is already causing some students to feel lonely – and we can only imagine
that new friendships will take a little longer to develop if they’re taking place in a
socially distanced manner.

It’s fair to say that everyone goes through ups and downs in terms of their wellbeing
– we all have mental health after all. But for around a quarter of us, these
fluctuations in mood can develop into symptoms of an ongoing mental health
difficulty. We also know that Generation Z are more likely to shoulder the impact of
today’s economic problems as they are likely to be living in rented accommodation
and reliant on regular income – often from the hospitality industry – in order to
support their studies.

Mental health difficulties are rarely the result of one single cause. Often, as
mentioned above, our mental health is shaped by a combination of our environment
and how safe and inclusive it may be, our genes, lived experiences, and learning
opportunities. Additionally, when students first head to university, there’s a whole
new way of learning to contend with. Student life is such a step change from school,
with study being fairly independent and self-driven. So in addition to the content and
level of the work itself, the way students learn is another big change.

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Add coronavirus and lockdown to the mix of this new student life and it’s bound to
cause some worries.

This year, however, the ‘new’ element of student life applies to all. Nobody is
returning to the same way of uni life they’re accustomed to. Which is why we
launched our £3m programme, Student Space, to provide a helpline, text support
and online resources for any higher education student needing a little extra support
during the coronavirus pandemic.

We know that people like to hear from others experiencing the very issues and
circumstances we are experiencing ourselves. That’s why Student Space focuses on
the unique aspects of student wellbeing – adding the context to the experience
allows us all to make sense of what is happening, and learn invaluable coping
techniques to manage things. Plus, it can be a relief when we open up to somebody
about something we’re going through and they tell us they’ve been there. They can
understand where we’re coming from. It’s comforting, and it stops you from feeling
so alone. This is why peer support is core to our work at Student Minds – we
understand the value of lived experience and a shared perspective.

Equally, students who come from underprivileged backgrounds and identities, and
people who may have experienced discrimination can find solidarity, strength and
support from their communities and through people who understand, personally,
what they’ve been through. This is why we think a targeted approach to support is
invaluable.

We need to support our students more than ever

Universities are already doing some really great work in supporting students in this
respect, making sure that on-campus and online services and resources are
available and tailored to suit the needs of their student communities. Yet, as we
know, the pandemic has increased demand and, with so much going on, it’s difficult
for students to know what’s available to them when they’ve got so much else on their
plate. This is why we’ve included a local university directory on the Student Space
site as well – so students have all their mental health resources in one place at the
click of a button.

There’s one more thing that we can all do to help students embrace their new
academic world. We can give them a break and understand their experiences. We
can recognise that the issues students face are indeed very real and very significant
to their lives. We can challenge harmful, unhelpful narratives about our students
once and for all, because they are studying, and graduating into, a completely new
world – one that previous generations haven’t experienced as students.

With so many external factors colliding in 2020, we need to support our students
more than ever as they head off to – or return to – university. After all, students’
minds will one day be transforming our future world in terms of research, talent and
innovation. We need to give them the best chance possible.

Rosie Tressler OBE is the CEO of Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity. Higher education students in England and Wales can access Student Space
for free by visiting their website