Pandemic still affecting mental health of UK students, helpline says

The pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the mental health of UK university students, experts warn, as figures show growing numbers of people are seeking help from peer-run helplines for anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Nightline, which is made up of anonymous student volunteers, said it saw a 51.4 per cent increase in calls in 2020-21, and that has since risen, with early data suggesting the numbers for 2021-22 were 30% higher, and even more 23% since the start of the academic year.

The helpline, which has been operating for more than 50 years, said there had been a significant increase in callers discussing stress and anxiety, reaching 10.9%. That figure has risen to 17% since September, including an increase in calls from students worried about their finances.

Despite a slight reduction in calls from students attempting suicide, Nightline saw an increase in the number expressing suicidal thoughts, which rose again this year, reaching 7.4% of calls.

Jennifer Smith, policy officer for the charity Student Minds, said the “vast majority” of students had experienced “significant disruption in their lives”, missing key social, academic and personal milestones, which left them a feeling of “grief, loss”. , uncertainty and lack of trust”.

“Current students have experienced the transition to higher education very differently from their predecessors and may feel underprepared for university life,” she said, adding that the pandemic remained a “real and very current challenge. for immunocompromised students, caregivers, and those taking health classes. .

Matt Jones, a PhD student at Loughborough University who suffers from depression, anxiety and autism, called Nightline six months ago because he felt “overwhelmed” by the deluge of stressful world events and that he was readjusting to socialization after two years of reduced contact and isolation.

“I sat down with friends and we all said ‘The pandemic has fucked us up’. Suddenly we don’t know how to handle [normal life],” he said.

“Locking everyone down for a year had a massive impact on people’s ability to connect interpersonally. If you look at freshmen, they lost their 15 to 17 years, which is when you do a lot of growth – you lose all those experiences.

Jones, who runs his university’s Nightline service, thinks we live in a particularly anxiety-provoking time for young people, as social media makes them feel more connected to world events – for example, watching TikTok clips passing pictures of soldiers murdered Ukrainians to videos of friends. He said there were also pressures to have well-informed opinions on everything, or risk social media shaming.

“There’s this feeling of, ‘We’re sick of living through history.’ We’re sick of living through big events, whether it’s Covid or the January uprising or the war in Ukraine. If you talk to students, more than anything else, it’s ‘Can we have a year where nothing is happening? Can we have a year of sanity and calm?”

He added that more students phoning Nightline was also a positive sign. “Sometimes [my generation] may sound more needy, but I don’t think that’s true, we just have a better understanding of what we need to do to help ourselves and communicate our needs.

Dominique Thompson, an NHS doctor and author of books on student wellbeing, said most studies of students’ emotional wellbeing after the pandemic showed increased anxiety and loneliness.

She said anxiety and suicidal thoughts tended to reflect feelings of loss of control over your life and your future – all of which had been exacerbated by the pandemic, recession and cost of living crisis.

“Anxiety continues to be fueled by uncertainty about the world they live in, be it future opportunities, ecological anxiety or political concerns, alongside day-to-day worries about the cost of life, academic pressure and friendship. We cannot underestimate the importance of all these issues for young adults and their sense of helplessness in the face of such enormous challenges,” she said.

Rachel Sandby-Thomas of the Association of Heads of University Administration said universities were aware of the impact of the pandemic on students and were developing and improving mental health support, including staff training on early detection of warning signs and partnership with the NHS on professional treatment.

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