Universities face student "mental health crisis"

Elsa Tarring reports on the effects coronavirus is having on students' mental health

Elsa Tarring
19th October 2020
Increased coronavirus restrictions contribute to young people not getting the support they need at UK universities, warn government advisors and the Labour Party.

Independent SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), a scientific body that advises the government, recently released a statement in response to the way UK universities have handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

The statement outlines that there is “an urgent need… to act quickly and pragmatically” . In order to prevent further spread of the virus and protect the wellbeing of students and staff, Independent SAGE strongly recommends that universities follow five key safety points:

  • transfer all teaching online by default, as Newcastle University has recently implemented
  • regularly test students and staff
  • offer students the choice to live on campus or at home
  • allow those who decide to remain at university the chance to return home at any point, with accommodation fees refunded
  • ensure full support to students and staff that are self-isolating

This announcement came just before the Labour Party condemned the government for its “shocking complacency” regarding the return of students to universities. 

Labour’s Shadow Mental Health Minister, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, warned that a failure to act now “could create a mental health crisis for thousands of young people”.

Kate Green, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary explained that “the challenges in returning to universities were predictable and predicted”, and that the current government has failed to sufficiently “ensure that students would all get the support they need.”

Research conducted by the Labour Party found that one in four universities had cut or frozen their budgets for supporting student mental health in 2019.

One Newcastle University fresher who tested positive for Covid-19 said, “The first week [of self-isolation] was very difficult” describing how, as a “sociable person”, she struggled being confined in her university flat. 

She continued, “I’m really feeling the pressure to get on with [my flatmates] because we’re having to isolate together. It’s not like [the] years before us where if you didn’t get along with your flat you could just do your own thing.”

Another first-year student is currently living at home after having moved out of her halls of residence three weeks after moving in. She told The Courier, “[I am] currently back with my parents because it feels safer”.

Before the threat of coronavirus, the number of cases of anxiety, mental breakdowns and depression was continually increasing. In 2019, 82 000 students said they had a mental health condition, more than twice as high as in 2015.

Experts believe these figures will only increase during the pandemic, with young people and women being most affected.

To tackle this rise in cases, a spokesperson for Newcastle University outlined new sources of support for students this year. 

“We have launched a new 24/7 professionally monitored mental health support network, Talk Campus, where students can talk to others around the world if they are struggling and worried about their mental health”.

They explained how they are working hard to adapt to the difficulties coronavirus has presented, “Our orientation events have been held online, so any student anywhere, including those who are isolating, can access them”.

Mind the Gap society at Newcastle University also urges students to get in touch if they are struggling. It is running weekly peer support sessions, socials to meet new people and has created student lockdown packs containing resources and activities to keep students busy during self-isolation.

They recognise the severity of the situation on young people, “we are really concerned and understand that mental health is going to be overall negatively impacted by the pandemic and we want to do all we can to help”.

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