Study in the time of Covid

Ella Rhodes reports.

Even before Covid-19, research suggested the mental health of students at UK universities was on the decline. In the face of quarantine, uncertainty, and rapidly increasing numbers of Covid-19 cases in university cities, students this year have had an extraordinary autumn term – Ella Rhodes spoke to the BPS Student Committee Chair and one expert who has seen a huge increase in demand for specialist mental health mentoring.

Tens of thousands of university students and members of staff contracted Covid-19 in the first few weeks of autumn term. At the time of writing The University and College Union has tracked more than 31,000 Covid-19 cases at UK universities, leading many students to live in self-isolation or quarantine. The experience of university has been altered beyond recognition for students, with some institutions temporarily pausing face-to-face teaching to tackle increasing cases while others are still holding some in-person tutorials and seminars – albeit with social distancing measures in place.

Third-year psychology and counselling student, and Chair of the BPS Student Committee, Eduard Daniel Margarit (Abertay University) said his experience of being a student during a global pandemic had been a ‘rollercoaster’. ‘We do have a teaching block one day per week which is face-to-face and in my view this is very helpful – especially for our mental health. A lot of us are international students or students who are not necessarily from Dundee, so to have the opportunity to even see someone from a distance can be quite beneficial.’

Starting university can be an extremely difficult and vulnerable time for students – Margarit said for many this will be there first experience of living away from home, family and friends. ‘Having to stay in your room and not meet people from your course, not being able to socialise, not being able to benefit from all the freshers events that the university usually puts in place, is just horrible… and there’s no way an online Zoom event or an online meeting could compensate for that. I think it needs to be acknowledged that people have been robbed of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.’

Margarit said the impact of all of these challenges and uncertainty on students’ mental health could not be denied. ‘I think students’ mental health can be affected whether you’re first year, last year or anywhere in between. The resources that are in place are sometimes hard to access or have very, very long waiting times.’ Margarit said universities could do more to better fund and promote on-campus counselling or peer-support services and encouraged students and lecturers to be kinder to themselves and with one another.

UMO, a non-profit organisation which provides specialised mental health mentoring (SMHM) to students at UK universities and colleges, has seen a 100 per cent increase in demand for its services during the autumn term – in part thanks to Covid-19. Dr Anna Matthews, founder and CEO of UMO, said that coming to university was a time of significant transition for students, even in more normal times.

‘With Covid, students are faced with additional challenges including the heightened anxiety amongst everyone. There is more concern about leaving university and the likely depressed job market. The financial strain will increase if a student was doing a part-time job which has disappeared, and there are also less opportunities for them to gain experience in terms of internships.’

The students currently being supported by specialist mentors, Matthews said, were feeling particularly isolated and lonely. ‘The usual options to go to union societies are limited, which impacts on their wellbeing. Furthermore, there are reports that students have become scared with rumours about Covid being spread in halls of residence. The more traditional ways of breaking the ice and making new friends via Freshers Fairs has changed, possibly creating greater obstacles to forming new friendships.

‘There is strong anecdotal evidence that Covid has exacerbated the mental ill health of some students, especially those who were already vulnerable. Ultimately it depends on the individual, their experiences, resilience and support network.’

While counselling provided at universities can be relatively short-term, SMHM usually consists of around 30 sessions per academic year and focuses on students in the context of their studies and life at university and provides advice, strategies and techniques. Matthews said UMO research had found that such mentoring had a significant impact on students’ progress at university, attainment, engagement with courses, and was useful in supporting students during the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘We have seen a significant increase in the demand for our service given that it is flexible, video-linked sessions have been available for 30 minutes twice a week rather than one-hour sessions and students who do not have privacy at home can walk and speak via their mobile etc. Students have managed to stay engaged in the intervention, have successfully completed coursework and exams, moved into the next academic year as well as finished their degrees – all during Covid.’

Throughout her 13 years working in this area Matthews said she had seen an increase in students disclosing mental health conditions each year – but one key challenge was reaching populations who are typically less likely to seek support. ‘It is clear that students who identify as Black or other minority ethnic groups are less likely to come forward for support. Subsequently UMO has developed various initiatives to encourage students from these groups to get support (specialist group coaching, wellbeing mentoring etc), distinct by having a diverse team of Specialist Mentors and matching them with a Mentor who can understand possible cultural differences and thus helping to build a more trusting relationship.’

To download a recent UMO White Paper – The role and impact of specialist mental health mentoring on students in UK higher education institutes – see: tinyurl.com/yyspk8uo

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