Virtual is new reality in supporting student mental health

Using digital tools can serve to reduce stigmas about accessing mental health support, say Zoë Mills and John Sharp

Zoë Mills is a project manager within the Lincoln Higher Education Research Institute at the University of Lincoln


John Sharp is a Professor of Higher Education and head of Lincoln Higher Education Research Institute at the University of Lincoln

Psychological issues associated with worry and anxiety have grown among students, as well as the general public.

As indicated by research into the psychological wellbeing of students in their initial year of university, as long ago as 2006, leaving a familiar home, perhaps for the first time, and becoming truly independent, can cause anxiety.

Managing finances and budgets, navigating new towns, cities and campuses, changing routines and academic learning styles, all coupled with new social situations and meeting new friends can feel overwhelming.

A time of change

For those with existing or emerging mental health concerns, particularly young people leaving compulsory or further education, the move into higher education often serves to deepen the weight of these concerns.

Students who found themselves quarantined within student accommodation during the national lockdown faced additional mental health challenges. Of a sample of 4,193 students surveyed by the National Union of Students (NUS) in November 2020, half of those surveyed stated that their mental health was worse than before the pandemic.

Inadequacies of home technology or digital “poverty”, the inability to study appropriately, social isolation and loneliness, and dealing with pre-existing or new mental health needs alongside uncertainty for the future feature in the findings.

For those students living in the family home during lockdown, socio-economic status, substance dependency, or potential increases in domestic violence were among additional cited factors affecting a student’s health and wellbeing.

If the emotional shockwaves from the Covid-19 pandemic were being felt by existing university students, then pupils completing A-levels and college-level study were in for an equally rough and unfortunate ride. Their student journeys will have ended abruptly and looked very different than expected.

Many who left school in March 2020 as a result of lockdown did not return to school or college to complete studies or exams before term ended, with all opportunities removed to say goodbye to teachers, lecturers, and peers.

According to the Young Minds Coronavirus report from summer 2020, for young people due to start a new college or university, “a recurring theme was an increase in anxiety because of the cancellation of transition days, with many young people who would otherwise have been excited feeling like they were arriving unprepared”.

Scaling up the support

The weight of potential concerns and additional challenges faced by pre-entry students to universities nationwide is not unproblematic. Transition is a pivotal point in prospective students’ lives and there is an evidenced need for additional support. The provision of funding from organisations such as the Office for Students (OfS) towards additional higher education mental health support is valid and necessary.

But with every year, universities see an ever-increasing number of students accessing mental health services, with the knowledge that there are just as many who never seek support for their concerns.

What universities need is not just mental health support but mental health support at scale. In the face of this serious challenge, higher education institutions have promoted digital apps, workshops, and analytics – largely “self-administered” by students themselves – utilised in place of one-to-one support from staff.

Many across the sector might raise concerns that the pace of digital innovation is proceeding ahead of any evidence-base with which to support its adoption and use and that it is often introduced for reasons other than supporting students. While concerns raised are entirely valid as a means to opening useful and informative discussion, the fact remains that students experience mental health concerns whilst at university that require different levels of specialist support by all manner of appropriate means.

What we suggest is that encouraging and supporting the retention of students is directly supporting their mental health. Allowing students to stay on at university where it is possible for them to do so is a positive, especially for those who did not or could not see themselves completing a degree due to sometimes complex and debilitating personal mental health challenges – regardless of the means by which this is achieved.

Digital on demand

Digital technologies and resources reach large numbers of students, with this style of provision available on demand and at the time and location of the user’s choosing. Use of technologies in this way can also serve to reduce perceived stigmas about accessing specialist face-to-face support.

Studies have shown that a barrier to help-seeking or accessing support was associated with the self-stigma that students feel. Offering students the option to digitally support their own mental health and wellbeing where appropriate, coupled with the challenges faced by Covid-19, means that particular provision is adapting to the ever-changing needs and requirements of higher education students.

But consideration should also be given to a blend, with a combination of relevant support available to prospective students to utilise at their convenience or as necessary.

With the move to virtual support replacing physical face-to-face and on-campus open days nationwide, an inability to visit a campus or meet new academics and friends, the impact is felt even more by prospective students who may feel “unprepared”.

Any intervention to support prospective students should consider a variety of approaches, dependent on the diverse demographic of the students themselves and their needs. Individual circumstances will necessitate different approaches, whether this be based on prior education, background, culture, severity of diagnosed conditions, accessibility, or environmental factors. Consideration of individual circumstance and appropriate options for prospective student engagement should be made readily available wherever possible.

Whilst some might view the use and promotion of digital tools as promoting a broader political agenda, including a way to save money by asking students to monitor and support their own mental health, the intention of many nationally funded projects such as those currently funded by OfS is about providing and, crucially, maintaining support.

This approach is always “as well as” and not “instead of”. Its intention is to enhance and complement support on offer, never to replace it.

Over the years, we have seen the hard work and often life-saving support provided to individuals every day by professional services and academic staff. That passion to help and support others cannot be ignored and neither can the passion and intention behind funded projects of national importance.

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