Student mental health – the specifics

There had been evidence of a growth in mental health issues among university students from the 2010s onwards, signalled by increasing demand for relevant health services. It is true that this could partly reflect a reduced stigma being attached to acknowledging mental health issues, as much as to a growth in the underlying problem. And it is certainly paralleled by a growing problem in the population as a whole, so it is not just student mental health that seems to have been deteriorating. But there does seem to be reason to think there is a rising problem for students, especially among women (Education Policy Institute, 2018). The Education Policy Institute (2018) attributes this to:

  • The challenges of transition to university for the growing number of students from non-traditional backgrounds
  • Greater financial worries, e.g. because of tuition fees
  • Exam and study stress
  • Growing career uncertainty and competition

As well as a crisis of physical health, the COVID-19 pandemic was a mental health crisis for many reasons (Mind, 2021). One factor was the direct anxiety about oneself or one’s loved ones being ill. Social distancing created social isolation and loneliness. There were more obstacles to taking physical exercise which in turn impacted mental health. While, stretched health services had reduced capacity to offer support. This crisis impacted the whole population but may have been differentially felt among some social groups.

One group that were certainly affected in particular ways were university students. In a 2021 survey of UK university students 74% said their mental health was worse than before the pandemic (Frampton and Smithies, 2021). Specific causes of mental health concerns for students were (NUS, 2020):

  • Difficulties of studying in the new environment
  • Challenges of managing boundaries when living at home and studying
  • Less integration into institutions so less easy access to support services Indirectly, financial concerns and long-term career worries

These impacts were felt unequally with disabled and LGBTQ+ students more affected (NUS, 2020).