Supporting student mental health during the pandemic and beyond

Written by Vice-Chancellor of UWE Bristol and University Alliance board member Professor Steve West

Good mental health enables students to learn, work and strengthen their communities. As universities, it is crucial that we support students who are experiencing mental illness, identifying those at risk and intervening as soon as possible. But we also have a responsibility to engage with mental distress and to promote good mental health and wellbeing for the entire university population, making the university environment as healthy and positive as it can be.

With the effects of COVID-19 and students experiencing unprecedented upheaval to their lives and studies, university mental health and wellbeing support has never been more important. If we project this to the generation that will be joining us over the next few years, we must acknowledge that the impact on their lives has been significant and we will need to invest to transition and support them throughout their studies.

Whether it’s moving out of home for the first time, making new friends or facing exams, university is filled with experiences which can be overwhelming and unnerving as well as transformative. Meanwhile the pandemic, lockdowns and social distancing measures have heightened feelings of isolation, anxiety and uncertainty for students across the UK, resulting in increased demand for university support services.

Within the University Alliance, and at my own university UWE Bristol, we’re not just sitting back and waiting for students to get in touch with us when they need help, we’re expanding our wellbeing support, proactively reaching out and innovating our offer by finding new ways to connect with students.  One of the ways we are doing this at UWE Bristol is by tracking students’ engagement with their online learning. This isn’t about being Big Brother, it’s so that we can spot students who may be struggling and can step in and see if they need support. We’ve also been proactively contacting students to see how they’re doing. We’ve already contacted thousands of students through phone calls, emails and other communication channels and we plan to reach many more by June 2021. We know that not all students need our help, but the point is that we’re keeping in touch and letting them know that support is available and easy to access when they need it.

And there are many more examples of innovative support which universities within the Alliance are offering during this time. The University of Brighton offers specialised support to groups who may have different needs and challenges. This includes disabled students, LGBTQ+ students, pregnant students and students with children.

Meanwhile, many University Alliance institutions and students’ unions are raising spirits and maintaining social contact through online events. Over the coming weeks, the Students’ Union at Anglia Ruskin University is holding an online bake-off, mindfulness workshop and an arts and crafts workshop. We’ve been hosting similar activities at UWE Bristol and in February ran a series of feel good events, including a free, stand-up comedy event for students and staff featuring A-list comedians. With the government’s roadmap to easing lockdown restrictions, hopefully it won’t be too much longer before these activities can be delivered in person and students are able to bond with their peers face to face.

Alongside addressing students’ emotional needs, universities are recognising the practical impact of the pandemic on students and the knock-on effect it has on their wellbeing. Many students are struggling financially after losing vital part-time work while the pandemic has also exposed the true scale of digital poverty in the UK. The sector has responded by offering hardship funding, digital support and accommodation refunds to students. At UWE Bristol, we’ve invested over £1.9 million in a new grant scheme for students who need IT equipment and spent over £7 million refunding students who are unable to use their university managed accommodation due to lockdowns.

Unfortunately, while I welcome the £50 million of additional government funding to support students and see it as a step in the right direction, this amount simply does not go far enough in addressing the escalating costs affecting universities and the increasing demand for our services. To put this into context, UWE Bristol’s allocation of the new government funding will be just £775,000 which equates to £26 per student. Meanwhile our costs for the services mentioned above continue to spiral into the millions. To effectively help all students affected by this crisis, the government need to offer a more substantial financial package to the higher education sector not just now, but into the future. This was a key point made by us at University Alliance in response to the government hardship funding package: we all know that the pandemic’s impact will be long-term and unpredictable.

As we look to the future, it is imperative that all universities make mental health and wellbeing a priority and take steps to integrate it into every corner of university life.  Last May, Universities UK released a strategic framework with this aim in mind and outlined the ways that universities can mainstream mental health and make it part of all practices, policies, courses and cultures.  Coupled with the challenges of the pandemic, it is clear that mental health must be strategically prioritised by the entire sector, with universities and government working together with schools, colleges, the NHS and charitable sector to help students thrive throughout the pandemic and beyond.

Further reading