Are we seeing improvements in student mental health?

Thousands of children and young people in England are benefitting from support for their mental health and wellbeing in education, as new research shows an improving picture in their recovery from the pandemic.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

That’s the headline from the Department for Education’s third annual State of the Nation report – an “in-depth picture” of the experiences of children and young people aged 5 to 24 throughout the pandemic during the 2020/21 academic year.

Given that about 1.5m university students are 24 or under, you’d have thought that DfE’s report might look at the multiple studies that have shown just how badly university students’ mental health has been hit during the pandemic. Perhaps it reflects on ONS’ findings on the devastating impact on third year undergraduates, or Student Minds’ findings on the impact on students’ academic experience, or Save the Student’s look at the link between student finances and poor mental health.

It’s weird, really, that given we seem to get a report on the terrible mental health of HE students every week, DfE seems not to have come across any of them, which presumably is what allows it to conclude that it sees an “improving picture”.

The good news is that despite the avoidance of evidence on student mental health in the report, further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan is using the occasion of its publication to announce extended funding for the Student Minds-managed online platform Student Space.

Or maybe we should say re-announce, as back last July OfS already told us that it would be allocating £1m this year to “an extension of the online services of Student Space, and through a national programme to mobilise recent existing effective practice to support student mental health throughout the sector.”

Actually, to be fair, there’s a few findings buried in the PDF if you go hunting. For example on Page 90 we learn that when looking at transitions in 2020, mental health appeared to be most adversely affected for those who became unemployed, those in their final year of university, and those continuing at university or college.

As long as you’re not relying on DfE reports, the picture on student mental health is pretty well understood, but one thing that is less well developed is our understanding of student mental health before university in relation to university. Eh?

In their 2019 and 2021 surveys of children’s wellbeing, The Children’s Society asked children and young people about the importance of getting good grades and going to university (if they want to) for their own future, as well as their worries about them for their future.

In 2021, 37 percent of children reported that going to university was very important for their future, while 38 percent reported that it was quite important (75 percent quite/very important), trends which appear higher than those in 2019. 11 percent of children reported that they were very worried about getting good grades, while 19 percent were quite worried (30 percent quite/very worried). And 8 percent of children reported that they were very worried about going to university (if they wanted to), while 19 percent were quite worried (31 percent quite/very worried). And all of those worry scores were worse for those who found the pandemic the hardest.

In other words, demand for higher education remains much much higher than supply; applicants are therefore more worried than ever about getting in and getting good grades; and no wonder that they carry some of that anxiety about their own competitiveness into higher education with them. If only there was some national coordination over understanding all of that better.

One response to “Are we seeing improvements in student mental health?

  1. I don’t know much about student’s Mental Health. But surely it stands to reason that if most Uni’s are still expecting students to watch lectures on their own in their rooms, then on the whole this can’t be helpful. The benefits of a structured timetable, meeting your peers, seeing your lecturers in the flesh and generally engaging with the world that in-person lectures involves should be recognised. Online lectures effectively trap students in their rooms when they are away from home for the first time and can be vulnerable, this can’t be a good thing for their mental health.

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