Warnings of mental health crisis among ‘Covid generation’ of students

<span>Photograph: Prostock-studio/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Prostock-studio/Alamy

The pandemic has had a lasting legacy on the mental health of the “Covid generation” of students, exacerbating rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm and resulting in a “significant rise” in young people struggling at university, experts have said.

UK universities have reported that more students are experiencing mental health problems in the aftermath of the pandemic, and that this is expected to continue with the cohort arriving in September, whose school experience was heavily disrupted by the pandemic.

The president of the National Union of Students, Larissa Kennedy, said she was “deeply concerned” by the student mental health crisis, which was “getting worse”, with NUS research suggesting “the majority of students are burdened by anxiety”.

Recent research by the Humen mental health charity suggested that more than two in five (41%) of students did not think their institution prevented problems from arising.

Nearly half (47%) of students said mental health difficulties had a negative impact on their university experience, while a third said they didn’t know where to go to seek help, according to the survey of 7,385 students.

Kennedy said students’ struggles were caused by exam pressure combined with the cost of living crisis, and called for more funding to introduce “early support hubs” that would “prevent thousands reaching crisis point”.

Last week the government announced £3m in funding to close the gap between the NHS and university mental health services, which the NUS warned was a drop in the ocean, equating to just £1 per student.

Universities were “seeing an increase in students experiencing mental health difficulties and, while this has been growing over time, it has undoubtedly been accelerated by the pandemic”, said Rachel Sandby-Thomas of the Association of Heads of University Administration (AHUA).

Dr Dominique Thompson, a leading medical expert on student mental health, added that professionals had seen “a significant rise” in students presenting with eating disorders, anxiety, loneliness and self-harm.

She said the younger generation had been “terribly impacted” by the pandemic and lockdown, and needed help to “rebuild their social skills, reassure them about their academic abilities, and support them to be emotionally well”, especially black, Asian or ethnic minority, LGBTQ+ and disabled students.

Recent data from the Student Loans Company suggested that these difficult experiences may be translating into higher university dropout rates, with 3,706 more students quitting their courses.

Humen also ranked universities on the mental health support they offered students by drawing on the survey results and freedom of information data, including how much institutions spend and student satisfaction. On that basis, the University of Reading was ranked highest, partly due to spending the most per student at an average of £70. Oxford and Central Lancashire came in second and third places.

Paddy Woodman, the director of student services at Reading, said the university recognised that mental health was affected by “a broad range” of issues, and that universities had a unique role as “an organisation that has to help their customers with everything to do with their lives”. This includes helping students with welfare questions that don’t necessarily require professional support, such as difficulties getting on with their housemates.

Helping students socialise was a particular focus, especially post-pandemic, Goodman said. She has observed that students want quieter, more comfortable spaces in which to make friends, and has noticed a notable drop in those attending the campus night club. “They have missed out on that transition to adulthood but in a safe home environment – exploring opportunities, going to parties, learning the rules of how you behave and manage yourself,” she said.

A spokesperson for Universities UK said that universities had “stepped up” their efforts to support their students in reflection of the difficult pandemic they have had, in combination with “social media saturation and climate anxiety”. He added that this was a “shared priority” with the NHS and the government, which universities were pressuring to ensure “sustained funding and by commissioning student-facing NHS services”.