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Minds in need

Image: Olivier Le Moal, via Shutterstock

On University Mental Health Day, Emma Hardy argues that student mental health requires urgent attention

I have recently been engaged in a series of online roundtables with students in different areas of the country to hear first-hand their experiences of university life during the pandemic, their hopes and fears for the future and their ideas for improvements to higher education.

Mental health has featured prominently in these meetings and it was extremely useful to have their stories fresh in my mind for a roundtable on student mental health I hosted last month along with Kate Green, shadow education secretary, and Cat Smith, shadow minister for young people and voter engagement. Attendees included representatives of Universities UK, Student Minds, the British Psychological Society, the University Mental Health Advisers Network and the National Union of Students.

Unique challenges

Students are around as likely to report a mental health condition as anyone else aged between 16 and 24. However, they often face challenges that are unique to their status as students. In the transition to university, those with existing mental health conditions can and do find themselves falling between the cracks or facing severe delays in accessing treatment and services. Isolation, chronic disruption, uncertainty and financial worries are drivers of mental illness in any circumstances. These have been prominent in students’ lives during the pandemic.

According to recent polling by the Sutton Trust, the biggest worry for students is being able to gain skills and experience needed for employment, with 76 per cent saying they were fairly or very worried. A third, meanwhile, reported difficulty in covering their basic living and course expenses.

It is inevitable that Covid-19 has exacerbated existing mental health problems and created new ones. In November, 52 per cent of students in a National Union of Students survey reported that their mental health had deteriorated or been affected negatively by Covid-19. Some 70 per cent of students in the Sutton Trust’s polling said they were concerned about their mental health or wellbeing.

Slow response

This should raise serious questions about the range and accessibility of the support available. Universities were not geared up or resourced for the increase in need we have witnessed, and the government’s response has been slow and limited. But there is an urgent need for higher education to recognise the struggles students are experiencing and look seriously at the support available. An ad hoc approach is not sufficient for a matter of public health. Students need and deserve a minimum offer wherever they choose to study.

As we look forward to the easing of restrictions and more students are set to return to campus, I would caution against the hope that these pressures will simply disappear. Lockdown has created additional challenges in accessing support services and there are students who are suffering but have not so far sought help. As many of those whose lives have been impacted by mental illness will testify, recovery lags behind the removal of external stressors and needs proper treatment and support. For those who had pre-existing conditions, the process of rebuilding may be more prolonged.

Financial worries

We are heading into a different world from the one we left in early 2020, when Covid-19 arrived on our shores. One of the main stressors brought up again and again in my interactions with students has been financial worries. For students who rely on earned income to make their studies possible, the loss of part-time work associated with the pandemic has been especially difficult. Even if provision for students’ mental health and welfare had been perfect before the pandemic—and we know it was not—this would require a readjustment.

My work as a constituency MP brings home to me the challenges facing all young people and highlights the deficiencies of current provision. We have an entire generation of children growing up with the impacts of Covid. All have experienced a disrupted education and a loss of social and family contacts. Covid will have reached into their lives in a variety of ways—bereavement, increased deprivation, the fallout of pressures on parents and carers. There is an undeniable need to invest in young adult futures across the board, and health—including mental health—must be a key determinant.

Higher education must engage with its students, recognise the urgent need to make improvements and embrace opportunities for reform—and it must press for a transformation of NHS and statutory services for students, putting integration at their heart.

Emma Hardy is shadow universities minister.