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According to the World Health Organization, ‘Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community’. Over the recent years mental health of students in higher education across the globe has become an increasing concern and has dramatically deteriorated in the past year due to the global pandemic. A large number of studies look at mental health trends in the general population. However, since the focus of this research is on mental health of university students, these will not be reviewed in detail and will only be referred to as appropriate. The first section will look at the sources which investigate mental health of students pre-covid. The following section will examine sources which look into student mental health during covid. Finally, the last section will review the sources which look into student mental health after Covid lockdown. I propose to investigate whether there has always been a level of a mental health crisis or whether Covid-19 has exacerbated these issues.
While student mental health in higher education has increasingly been seen as a crisis due to the global pandemic, pre-covid there were already heightened concerns. The impact of mental health issues on students can be serious as it can lead to academic failure, dropping out of education, poorer careers prospects and in the worst-case suicide. A number of studies pre-covid have emphasised how the changing demographic of students universities can partially account for the increased mental health issues. Macaskill (2013) discusses how Royal College of psychiatrists state that the government are encouraging more students from a wider sector of society to attend university. Johnson (2018) agrees as the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education has increased over the last 5 years. He observes how being from a socially disadvantaged background is associated with a substantially higher risk of experiencing a common mental health disorder. Therefore, these issues discussed highlights that years before covid-19 there were already issues to do with student mental health.
Both authors stress the link between financial concerns of university having a negative impact on mental health such as students managing their own finances. However, neither address how the organisation of universities themselves affect student mental health. On the other hand, Burns et al (2020, pg2) examines how the growing student numbers have impacted the personal relationships that staff and students hold, leading to a severe reduction in time devoted to pastoral support from academic staff. Consequently, the way universities are run today is not helping the big transition many students face from leaving their homes to a new university life with problems such as loneliness, social pressures such as making new friends and academic pressure.
Additionally, Owen (2017) makes an interesting comment on whether there’s been an increase of mental health issues or just awareness. It could be seen that a positivistic outlook is more valid to determine this point as it may seem that there has been an increase in mental health issues due to more measures put in place such as surveys to find research on this topic. Similarly, Gorczynski et al (2017) examines the level of mental health literacy of students. However, in their study they discuss how university students lack sufficient mental health literacy skills to be able to recognise mental health problems. This contradicts Owens (2017) point on how there may actually be an increase in student mental health issues and not just awareness. Furthermore, Shackle (2019) further highlights this point as she explains how the crisis in student mental health hit the news in 2017 after a high number of suicides at Bristol University. Shackle (2019) discusses how ‘given that about ½ of young people now go to university, the number of students seeking help is inevitable’. Undoubtfully, it is important to discuss student suicide as it draws attention to a real-life issue in the student community and emphasises the significance of the research.
Moving on to the pandemic, there are certain sources which examine how the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on mental health of university students is serious and a growing concern. They draw upon the notion of the loss of societal trust during Covid-19 towards universities who were seen as unable to fulfil their duties and be counted on to perform their responsibilities. The statistics provided by the National Union of Students (2020) highlights the extent of the problems as ‘53% of respondents said their mental health and wellbeing was worse than before the pandemic’. However, this study cannot be considered large enough as the survey involved only over 4,000 students, as there are 2.38 million students studying at higher education institutions. Rimmer et al (2020) exemplifies this on how waiting time for help has increased due to covid-19 and are ‘overly reliant on self-help methods’. Therefore, these sources are crucial to the idea d that there may be growing concerns for the future if students feel they cannot trust their own universities especially after the impact of covid-19 in declining student mental health.
The following section will discuss the mental health of students after covid-19 and how universities have adapted to this. Kotouza et al (2021) states how in the last five years the mental health crisis universities is claimed to have worsened, notably following a succession of student suicides as well as most recently the pandemic having a great effect on this. Savage et al (2020,pg 5) stresses how ‘these findings must be considered by universities when developing policies and interventions to support their students following this difficult time’. However, these sources do not provide the specific information on what the universities can do to improve this situation during the time of covid-19. On the other hand, Out-Law News (2021, no pagination) suggests what universities can be doing such as offering online resources of online 1-1 counselling to provide support for the ‘increased demand’ of mental health services whilst ‘adapting to covid-19 guidelines’. As a result, it is clear to see how the pandemic has increased the pressure of universities to support student mental health as well as adapt after this unprecedented time.
Furthermore, there is some debate about the impact of online learning on student mental health. Burns et al (2020) state that the pandemic has shifted the ‘student wellbeing domain considerably’ and the ‘environment in which the student now studies will provide unique barriers to a streamlined learning experience’. Therefore, personal relationships between students and staff are very important especially during unprecedented times and this should be responsibility universities take on. Whilst it may expect to see that mental health has deteriorated as a result of covid-19, there is some documentation which takes the other viewpoint. For example Razavi (2021) stated how ‘students like the flexibility’ of online learning . Online learning can be beneficial for university students as you can have a flexible study schedule, you can study from anywhere and some may feel they are more productive in their own space. Additionally, Khan (2021) concedes that we may have an excuse for this mental health crisis ‘due to the rapid nature of the pandemic and the limited time available for the transition to online learning’. However, this should not be an excuse for universities to not offer efficient and meaningful support pre or post pandemic (Khan, 2021). As a result, there is clearly conflicting views on online learning and whether universities have implemented enough support for student mental health.
Overall, to a large extent Covid-19 has had a great impact and exacerbated the mental health crisis of students. Whilst to a large extent many of the sources have provided evidence that there is a mental health crisis for university students before and during Covid-19, specific conclusions about Covid-19 and its after effect on higher education students will only become clearer as time progresses and more study is undertaken. The evidence suggested in the papers are strong and support this argument, but with the rising number of international students attending universities, in the future, estimations of the frequency and understanding of mental disorders in students conducted in other countries may become more relevant and increase the significance of this argument. The university environment is a great opportunity to integrate health promotion and should be seen as perfect setting for change and improve this mental health crisis (Cawood et al, 2010).
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