Universities' mental health support 'under increasing Covid pressure'

Out-Law News | 20 Jan 2021 | 2:58 pm | 2 min. read

UK universities are finding themselves under increasing pressure from greater numbers of students needing to access mental health and wellbeing support services in the face of growing evidence of increasing mental health issues caused by Covid-19, an expert has said.

A recent survey carried out by the National Union of Students (NUS) found mental health had deteriorated or been affected negatively by Covid-19 for 52% of students, but only 29% of those reporting worsening mental health had sought help. Of those who had looked for support, around three in five (57%) were satisfied with what they received.

Higher education expert Stephanie Badrock of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said reports from students suggest the explosion in demand for mental health support amongst university students has impacted on institutions' ability to cope with present demands leading to a perception that universities are not being responsive to requests or that the level of support is not consistent across the sector when accessed.

“Covid-19 is unprecedented and tests universities’ abilities to adapt quickly and effectively to a new remote world,” Badrock said.

“While delivery of the student experience continues to adapt to government restrictions to limit the spread of infections, universities are having to continue to try and understand and respond to the challenges and needs of different student and staff groups, whether academically or pastorally,” Badrock said.

“The pandemic has and continues to impact students’ day-to-day lives and many will be facing new pressures on their mental wellbeing. More than ever, it is critical that students can access mental health and wellbeing support services. Awareness of support, accessibility to that support and its responsiveness will be key and should be enhanced as new lockdowns apply further pressure,” Badrock said.

Badrock pointed to recent reports that indicated student mental health issues were being exacerbated by student concerns about uncertainty surrounding online learning involving long periods of screen time with no social interaction.

She said that while many universities have a long track record of providing wellbeing support, and there are a number of important examples of how institutions have sought to meet the considerable challenges presented by Covid-19,  there is clearly further work to do in the wider sector. It is important for universities to make sure that all students are constantly reminded of  the support services that are accessible to them and more importantly that students know how to access them. In light of the move to virtual learning, for instance using a variety of communication channels to publicise the support that was available and making it easier to seek appointments online.

Institutions would also be advised to review present demands on those services and ensure that they have a strategy in place which ensures that their support services can cope with increased demand during lockdown or periods of student isolation, including for those students and staff not physically attending university or living on campus.

Universities needed to consider how support can be delivered safely and in line with social distancing guidance, and should consider including online resources, counselling appointments via telephone, or online video conferencing platforms, Badrock said. University health and wellbeing services should not seek to replace NHS provision and they should continue to work with local NHS providers and seek to complement NHS services for students and staff in critical need.

Universities should also continue to give consideration to their other duties to vulnerable students including the action required to support those with disabilities, health conditions, caring responsibilities, or lack of access to appropriate technology or equipment, Badrock said.

There are a number of resources already available for universities, including a checklist produced by Universities UK to support students in self-isolation (2 page / 105KB PDF), and the principles and considerations for emerging from lockdown (21 page / 300KB PDF).

In September the Office for Students said universities should be regularly reviewing the wellbeing and mental health needs of students and staff, ensuring appropriate support is in place and that this is clearly communicated. Accessibility to these services should be enhanced and choice offered to those requiring support.