According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), student mental wellbeing has suffered massively since the beginning of the Autumn 2020 term. Almost two thirds of students surveyed reported that their mental health and wellbeing has gotten slightly or much worse since the beginning of the 2020 Autumn term. This is hardly surprising, with confusion and frustration shadowing the Higher Education experience of students.
Niamh McLaughlin, 23 from Cookstown, described to me why these statistics ring true with students like her. “To be honest I am not surprised by the ONS statistics. I believe the main reason for these shocking statistics is due to the lack of face-to-face teaching, feeling isolated from classmates and friends and heightened anxiety due to the pandemic.”
Niamh stated that “higher education institutions could be doing a lot more to combat how their students feel. There really is a duty of care that universities must deliver, and this has certainly been strained due to remote and distanced learning. Universities continue to charge full fees as normal, so there definitely is the money and capacity to deliver mental health programmes, which is something which perhaps should be brought forward to Students Union representatives.”
Marie Duffy of Ulster University Student Wellbeing services discussed the impact the pandemic has had on providing services to help with student mental health. “Compared with last year overall despite the fact we are working remotely, we have seen a 14% rise in the number of students who have accessed our services since the pandemic started. Outside of helping students with disability disclosures, about 80% of our appointments have been around anxiety, and after that academic issues.” To Student Wellbeing, it is clear that anxiety and other mental health issues surrounding higher education are on the rise.
Similarly, Chris Chambers, the outgoing VP Sport and Wellbeing at Ulster University commented “the statistics are very concerning but by no means a surprise. Through my work over the last two years, I have seen statistics like this rise incrementally over the last 5 years in research, with nothing of worth being done at a national or governmental level to help change this.”Chris praised the work of Student Wellbeing, “I believe that the work they are doing is to the best of their ability. They have adapted very quickly and ably to the COVID-19 pandemic and have serviced more students during this period. They are constantly evolving and improving; however they are limited in the service they can provide as they are under resourced. The government needs to improve their financial resource into this department.”
Marie Duffy of Student Wellbeing recognised this. “We are not a complete wraparound support service we are meant to be short-term and signposting, linking someone who is struggling to their GP and working with community mental health teams. Your GP is the main gatewat to any kind of service but the waiting lists are serious. For example if a student discloses past sexual abuse the only specialist service is Nexus and at the moment their waiting list is about a year. Once somebody decides they are ready to process something how can you expect them to wait a year?”
Going forward from the pandemic, the Northern Ireland Assembly alongside Professor Siobhan O’Neill have released a Mental Health Strategy. However “students were hardly mentioned” Marie disclosed. Student Wellbeing services alongside the Ulster University Students Union are maintaining pressure to clearly include students in this document and identify how mental health in Higher Education can be improved.
The rise in mental health issues can be seen as linked to the rise in levels of dissatisfaction of students towards the Higher Education system, with 57% of students dissatisfied with the social experience of university. Niamh McLaughlin explained “the socialising associated with being a university student is what draws a lot of young people to pursue further education. It is not surprising that they are dissatisfied with this and therefore are mentally not in a great place.”
According to students, the link between the high levels of dissatisfaction with the higher education social experience and increasing mental health difficulties is clear. Chris Chambers pointed out that students need to be “recognised as a significant cohort in society and not just under the label of young people.” To combat rising mental health difficulties and increasing dissatisfaction with the higher education social experience, specific student needs will have to be recognised and combated both within higher education institutions and from government level. Student Wellbeing recognised that the proposed Mental Health Strategy coming from the Northern Ireland Assembly did little in regards to students specifically, and they are working with Student Unions to highlight this. It is clear that co-operation is needed on all levels to help this increasing mental health problem within higher education.