This Hat Blogs: Are We Trading a Global Pandemic for a Mental Health Epidemic Among University Students?

Author: Clemmie Carson

Covid-19 has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. From physically imposed limitations to forming our own mental prisons, it is evident that 2020 is a year to be simultaneously left behind, and yet, elevated in our history books. For many prospective university students, 2020 was not visualised as a year accessorized with restrictions, tiers and bubbles. A sparkling September was quickly darkened by the ongoing Corona Virus pandemic. How has this drastically affected the mental health of new and returning university students?

 Existing problem

According to the Mental Health Survey, published in 2020 but assessing 2019 data, approximately 1 in 4 university students experience mental health problems every year. Mental health problems are prevalent in this age-group because of the plethora of challenges facing university students, including moving away from home, academic work and social pressures. The survey indicates that first year students are at lower risk to mental health issues than second and third year students, but this is likely to shift in light of Covid, due to the unusual start to university. Mental health is an increasing problem, and this is evidenced by the number of students experiencing a significant mental health issue that required professional help increasing by 8% in just one year. One can prophesise that the Mental Health Survey 2021 is likely to produce far more shocking figures, which might transition the status of the mental health crisis into a recognised epidemic.

 Isolation

A sense of belonging is key to good mental health, according to Kate Lister, lecturer in mental health at the Open University. It has become increasingly challenging to feel engaged with one’s community due to the encouragement to fight our instincts and stay apart. Moreover, self-isolation during corona-outbreaks in halls for many freshers has felt imprisoning. Food delivered to their door on a tray and confined to their rooms, on top of lacking strong social foundations, is likely to be damaging to this generation. Students are missing out on the vital elements to making key relationships; socialisation. And now, with this new strain of Covid circulating the South of England, many students living in London are pessimistic about returning to their universities in the new year, fearing they will exacerbate the spread.

 Productivity

A common by-product of mental health issues are physical symptoms. Tiredness has commonly been discussed as an overwhelming force during the first national lockdown, as people were unable to distinguish between work and relaxation. But what are the consequences for students in the future? Reduced library hours, limited contact teaching hours and working from one’s bedroom are likely to affect students’ productivity and enjoyment of their studies. Many universities opted for a no-detriment scheme for 2020 end of year exams, but will 2021 hold the same fate? This is likely to be a point of anxiety for many students and should be addressed by the universities, if not already being so.

 Jobs

Excitement about new friendships, relationships or parties has quickly been replaced by anxiety over infection, distance and isolation. However, for many students, financial difficulties are paramount. Many students supporting themselves through university via part-time jobs have been put on furlough, meaning they are failing to make necessary payments, or have even found themselves jobless. There is a strong correlation between unemployment and mental health problems, with the average number of people with psychological problems doubling those with jobs. On top of this, many university students will be experiencing excess stress and anxiety over the possibility of getting a job after university. The sight of the usual shops along the high street shut down due to the financial stress of the pandemic is surely discouraging for those hoping to secure employment in any field.

Ultimately, we are navigating unchartered, tumultuous seas and must support and encourage each other. Get involved, keep in touch and be proud of surviving 2020.

 If you have been affected by any of the topics discussed, please see below helpful numbers:

 Samaritans: call 116 123 (free from any phone)

SANEline: 0300 304 7000 (4.30pm–10.30pm every day).

The Mix: if under 25, you can call The Mix on 0808 808 4994

Papyrus HOPELINEUK: If under 35, you can call 0800 068 4141