The mental health impacts of Covid-19 will outlast the pandemic itself

What happened to student mental health during the pandemic - and what should be done now? Nicola Frampton shares findings from Student Minds' new report.

Nicola Frampton is Insight Manager at Student Minds

The last couple of years have been a turbulent time for higher education communities.

As we entered 2020, the sector’s focus was largely on the ongoing impacts of industrial action, with a second wave of strikes occurring in February 2020.

At Student Minds, we were planning the next steps for our University Mental Health Charter Award, beginning work across three OfS Challenge Competition projects and regular activities such as training, peer support and campaigning.

Few could have predicted the size or lengivity of the impact Covid-19 would have – but as students hesitantly packed their belongings for the Easter vacation, wondering how much they should take just in case, we began to realise the significance of what we were about to face.

It was around this time, back in March 2020, that we took a step back as an organisation and began a period of listening.

By collecting and analysing thousands of sources including news articles, social media posts, conversations with our volunteers and secondary research findings, we were able to identify recurring issues affecting the student community.

We also conducted our own research – initially through two pulse surveys in April-May 2020, and later through a call for evidence and a survey, run by Alterline, in April-May 2021.

We’ve now published our findings in a new report – University Mental Health: Life in a Pandemic, which explores the disruption to students’ living arrangements, financial situations, social connectedness, learning experiences and access to support.

We also highlight the disproportionate impacts of the past 18 months on specific communities, such as ethnic minority and racialised students, women students, international students and LGBTQ+ students.

Here we share a snapshot of what we found.

Deep impacts

As our colleagues in the sector will already know all too well, the pandemic has had major, wide-reaching impacts on higher education communities. Our own research, conducted in April-May 2021 with a broadly representative sample of 1100 university students found:

  • 74 per cent of students reported that Covid-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing at university.
  • 49 per cent reported that the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively impacted their financial situation.
  • Two thirds said they have “often felt isolated or lonely since March 2020”.
  • 82 per cent said the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively impacted their academic experience.
  • 65 per cent said they needed additional help/advice during the Covid-19 pandemic. Of these, just 19 per cent actually got the help they needed.

Every aspect of students’ lives have been disrupted in some way, and for some students, these impacts have been felt disproportionately due to pre-existing health conditions and inequalities. For many, the compound impact of both multiple aspects of their lives being affected and their conditions and inequalities exacerbating these issues has been significantly harmful.

Without clear, significant support from the government, and with university services often overstretched even without the additional pressure of a pandemic, students have been left feeling forgotten and scapegoated.

Black lives and women’s safety still matter

Our listening work was dominated by issues relating to the Covid-19 pandemic. But over the course of 2020 and 2021, we also witnessed and experienced the collective rage, grief, shock, frustration and dismay resulting from the unjust, high profile killings of both George Floyd and Sarah Everard, along with the activism which followed.

When we first began to reflect on the year that had passed, we recounted the significance of those moments – the outpourings of solidarity, coupled with the shared anger that lives continue to be lost due to hate, division and widening inequality. We knew that these moments had cast renewed light on deeply-ingrained, long-standing issues – issues which we are all responsible for tackling – and that the impacts on the student community were, and continue to be, significant. We therefore agreed that it was important that we gave space in our report, which set out to be a reflective piece on the experiences of students throughout 2020/21, to recognise these impacts and to highlight the work still to be done.

Myles Smith-Thompson and Chloe Maughan co-authored these background sections, and below are two excerpts from their respective pieces:

In the last year, the world has begun to witness and understand just the surface of what Black and Minority Ethnic people have experienced and continue to experience. For many, the last year has amplified the complex and nuanced barriers and disadvantages that have been overlooked for too long. Moving forward, we ask that Universities do more to understand the diverse needs of their student communities. We must begin to prioritise the health and wellbeing of those who chose to work and study within our virtual walls and campuses. It is not enough to be ‘not racist’, but we must actively strive towards being ‘anti-racist’. Remember… We all have a part to play, a responsibility to act.” (Myles Smith-Thompson – ‘Black Lives Matter: Looking at the Black and Ethnic Minority Experience of the last year’).

Sexual misconduct and violence can be prevented. Schools and universities should be at the forefront of this objective, working to develop preventative measures that help to create healthy communities and reduce the prevalence of sexual violence. Alongside this, it is critical that universities, schools and colleges continue to implement responsive measures to support students now. With appropriate support, victim-survivors of sexual violence can effectively manage the impacts of trauma and have fulfilling university experiences. But universities and schools have a pivotal role to play in supporting victim-survivors and preventing sexual misconduct on their campuses.” (Chloe Maughan – ‘Women’s Safety at University’).

How to support students now

Based on our listening and reflections, we’ve developed a series of recommendations which we believe serve as clear and urgent next steps for universities and students’ unions to build post-pandemic strategies which prioritise student and staff mental health.

We think, for example, that all students should receive a minimum £500 support payment from the government, plus top-up hardship funding for those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Universities should get to work on co-producing approaches to teaching, learning and assessment, with flexibility and sensitivity toward the unique, individual needs and preferences of students.

Accessible and culturally-competent support services should be available for all students – but peer support matters too. We think there needs to be increased funding and support for student-led activities, to enable students to foster social spaces and support networks.

Crucially, we think all universities should plan for the mental health impacts of the pandemic to outlast the pandemic itself.

2019/20 and 2020/21 have been turbulent years for higher education communities. There’s every chance that 2021/22 will be turbulent too. But if we can look ahead, knowing we have survived and learned from the past 18 months, together we can create positive change for students and build happy, healthy university communities.

2 responses to “The mental health impacts of Covid-19 will outlast the pandemic itself

  1. A minimum £500 support payment from the government? For what? A deterioration of mental health experienced by nearly everyone in society? My mental health has deteriorated too through the pandemic due to restrictions on not being able to see extended family and friends, why cant I have £500? What about FE students?

    1. We agree that support should be available for all those who need it, and recognise that the impact of the pandemic has been felt by all of society.

      As the UK’s student mental health charity, Student Minds is here to advocate specifically for university students. Our recommendation that students should receive financial support doesn’t mean that other groups should not – we recognise and understand the widespread impact of the pandemic on all of society, and do not wish to undermine that.

      However, we do aim to highlight the disproportionate impacts on students (and young people more generally) who have had limited access to financial support options such as benefits (e.g. universal credit), the furlough scheme and mortgage holidays. Students have also been significantly impacted by the forced closure of the retail and hospitality industries, and have often had no option but to continue paying rent for properties they couldn’t access, and for technology to enable them to participate in online learning. Our recommendation is that all students receive a support payment to enable them to pay for such costs so that they can continue their education, access support or pay their rent, for example.

      If you’d like more information about the specific financial impacts of the pandemic on students, you can see the findings of our research from page 32 of our report.

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