• Maryam Anser

How Can Universities Help Students With Mental Health?

The government’s handling of the pandemic – disastrous. Support for university students – non-existent.

Almost one year on from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we have witnessed the loss of loved ones whilst unable to be by their side, endless lockdowns, and life as we knew it turned on its head. It’s no surprise that the past eleven months have taken a toll on people’s mental health. But perhaps the most affected, who make up a huge majority of the demographic, have had their mental health struggles unnoticed, and swept under the carpet – university students.

To put it bluntly, universities and the government have failed students every step of the way since the first lockdown in March 2020. Students in their late teens and early twenties trusted these institutions to support them through these difficult times, but instead, they turned a blind eye.

In parallel, through the summer, heading into the new academic year, students and young people were blamed for rising cases because apparently, they were out partying and taking advantage of Eat Out to Help Out. For those who may not have cottoned on, these accusations were a distraction from the GCSE and A-Level results fiasco. Universities have done nothing for students with plummeting mental health. Here’s what they could and should have done.


1. Practice what you preach

Following the A-Level results debacle in August, students were gripped by uncertainty and heartbreak, with unexpected grades and rejected university offers. The least universities could have done was to honour all the students they had made offers to. Instead, students were rejected from their dream universities because of a mutant algorithm.

Yes, universities have capacities to worry about, but they shouldn't make teenage students the victim of their protocols. Typically, students are 18 or 19 years old when they start university. In other words, still teenagers. In case universities missed the memo, that’s the age students are ready to go on a journey of finding themselves, impressionable, and prone to mental health struggles such as anxiety and low self-esteem.

Universities harp on about mental health and students’ wellbeing, but when the self-esteem of millions of students was at an all-time low, they were silent; a silence that has shattered students’ trust in those who are tasked with ensuring their wellbeing.


2. Cancel student fees

University students up and down the country have had little to no face-to-face time with their tutors or fellow classmates since the academic year began. Many freshers and returning students were looking forward to at least some socialising at the beginning of the academic year but were forced to isolate and study online. Under these circumstances, there is no justification for the tens of thousands of pounds worth of student debt when students have hardly been at university anyway. Value for money? Never heard of it. Universities must stop lining their pockets at the expense of already worried students. £9250 a year was never worth it, let alone in a pandemic.


3. Support graduates

Students who graduated in the middle of the pandemic had a very different experience to what we’d normally see. There were no flamboyant ceremonies or parties, that's for sure. More worryingly, there is an even smaller chance of graduates securing graduate jobs since so many companies are struggling. It is so mentally taxing for students looking for work right now. The uncertainty of the future, the ‘what if I never get my dream job’ doubts, and competing with thousands of others for jobs – it’s a very tough gig.

To prevent a pandemic of students struggling with their self-esteem due to unemployment, it’s high time universities started helping students secure meaningful work. There’s only so much CV checks can do! Universities have the network to support graduates into employment, it would do wonders for their mental health and their sense of security, and they’d be doing their job as an establishment.


4. Remember that students are people, with feelings

For the longest time, students have been stereotypically portrayed as party-obsessed youth, with no regard for anyone but themselves. Now would be a great time to banish these stereotypes, and for universities to understand that students can and do struggle deeply with mental health. Universities have made students travel halfway across the country to new cities, with unfamiliar surroundings, and people, and then mercilessly locked them up in student accommodation with no guarantee of proper care. Fair enough, traveling is prohibited under lockdowns, but exemptions should have been made for students struggling to cope.

There’s been talk about students reaching out to university staff for mental health support, but they have no trust in the same people who have repeatedly criminalised them and blamed them for soaring cases. If universities had acted responsibly from the start, putting their students above all else, perhaps students would have been more inclined to trust them and speak about their struggles.


4. Use social media

Most students are very well versed in social media and spend loads of time on these platforms. Unfortunately, young people are often first to fall prey to the horrors of social media and the internet; online hate, trolls, the list is endless. It would seem obvious that as students are made to stay indoors, they’ll take to social media to pass the time and fill the void where face-to-face socialising would come in.

University staff need to keep on top of the ever-changing social media trends and platforms. Digital is the way forward and anyone who works with young people needs to be clued up. This isn’t to suggest we police students’ social media accounts. Instead, university staff should remain cautious, as there are some hateful and perverted people on social media. In doing so, universities can once and for all show they are concerned about the wellbeing and mental health of their students, rather than being oblivious to the dangers which threaten young people.

Conversely social media can be used to engage and support students whilst they are in lockdown and unable to go out. Universities could easily use Instagram or Snapchat to post lively and fun content for students, with regular messaging about wellbeing and mental health. Being active and with the times on social media also allows students to gain trust in their university tutors and staff, as it’s a sign they ‘get it’. Sometimes, it’s simple actions like this that create the best impacts.


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