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Mental Health Awareness Week shines light on student wellbeing

The UK’s education sector has come together to mark #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek, acknowledging the strain that “a year of uncertainty” has put on many students.

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"Thompson said her GP colleagues who worked at university practices were seeing students come in who were having suicidal thoughts"

Stakeholders highlighted the serious mental health challenges that both international and home students have faced in the country during the pandemic, and what institutions can do to offer adequate support.

“Many of them have felt very anxious because of the constant uncertainty”

GP and young people’s mental health expert, Dominique Thompson teamed up with accommodation search engine mystudenthalls.com to launch a new well-being guide for students.

Dr Thompson spoke about the seriousness of the mental health challenges that many are facing – saying that her GP colleagues who worked at university practices were seeing students come in who were having suicidal thoughts.

“There has been an overwhelming demand for support this year. It was already pretty high, pretty complicated, pretty risky cases they were managing. It’s got worse this year,” she said.

She explained that international students have faced specific challenges.

“The challenges will depend on whether they’ve arrived and then ended up having to go into lockdown in a new country, and have felt very isolated.

“Many of them have felt very anxious because of the constant uncertainty and moving goalposts in terms of what the rules are, what they can and can’t do.

“Then, of course, there have been the students who didn’t come back but have been trying to study from wherever they are, and they have clearly had similar challenges to any of the students studying remotely, which is finding a quiet place to study, trying to log into teaching sessions when they’re in a different time zone…it’s not an ideal scenario,” she said.

The Student well-being: a guide to building better mental health in university seeks to explore some of these key issues affecting students and provides tips and resources to help to tackle any challenges.

“This year has added pressure to a generation that wasn’t OK to start with”

Thompson explained that this kind of support is necessary given the serious nature of the mental health problems students may face.

“I think it’s been extremely serious. This year has added pressure to a generation that wasn’t OK to start with,” she said.

“They were already, and have for about the last 10 years, been showing signs of increasing distress, increasingly feeling pressure in all different sorts of areas, increasingly feeling that they mustn’t fail, an absolute fear of failure.”

Thompson said that perfectionism has been shown to be increasing over the last 30 years, and she warned of a “real deep feeling about letting people down”.

“[This] is perhaps culturally maybe more common in some international cultures. So those things were already there.

“Then we added the pandemic on top of it. People were cut off, so they didn’t have the resources and support from the usual people, necessarily. Or studying became harder so they couldn’t do well, so they didn’t feel that they were achieving as they should,” she added.

“We recognise that international students may have faced particular difficulties during this time”

UK organisations that work with international students took action to help many who were facing difficult circumstances.

“This has been an incredibly challenging period for many, and we recognise that international students may have faced particular difficulties during this time,” a spokesperson for Universities UK International told The PIE

“Throughout the pandemic, UK universities have been working hard to support student mental health and wellbeing and have been offering support through their mental health and wellbeing services.

“UUKi continues to encourage members to ensure that wellbeing resources are well signposted and that students know how to access support available.”

UUKi took a number of measures over the year to try and support students with their wellbeing- including running the #WeAreTogether campaign which had a significant focus on wellbeing.

During this campaign UUKi said it was particularly conscious of international students who may have remained on campus over the winter holiday period and so the organisation ran a mini-campaign ‘12 days of wellbeing’ to signpost to wellbeing resources and share student tips.

While Dr Thompson praised the hard work of university staff and acknowledged that institutions have done a great deal to help support students, she said there were some areas that might need improvement.

“There are perhaps just one or two broad things that universities could still focus on,” she said.

“One of those would be, for me, communication. I think it’s fair to say that some universities are still not being as potentially transparent and clear enough with their messaging to their students, even if it’s to say, ‘well, things are difficult and we’re not sure when we will know that everybody will be back in lectures or doing exams’ or whatever.

UKCISA’s chief executive Anne Marie Graham told The PIE that communication has been a key part of UKCISA’s strategy in helping students with their mental health.

“We’ve been running some social media content for mental health awareness week, including some content with our student ambassadors, as well as disseminating and amplifying work of other organisations in this space.”

Graham said that UKCISA has worked closely with Student Minds on their Student Space project, and one of UKCISA’s student ambassadors is on Student Minds’ advisory committee.

“We have run a lot of social media content from the ambassadors throughout the pandemic and much of it focuses on mental health,” she added.

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