Dr Elaine Murray discusses how COVID-19 has impacted delivery of student wellbeing support

9 October 2020

Dr Elaine Murray discusses how COVID-19 has impacted delivery of student wellbeing support
Dr Elaine Murray discusses how COVID-19 has impacted delivery of student wellbeing support

Early signs of poor mental health often arise during late adolescence and early adulthood, which, for many, will coincide with their time at university. There has been an increased focus on mental health problems in recent years with research indicating increasing prevalence rates amongst university students globally. University life comes with new experiences and challenges including managing finances for the first time, forming new social networks and getting used to a less structured academic environment, which allows many students to thrive but for others can exacerbate or precipitate issues around mental wellbeing. Data from our research at Ulster University and from other studies across the UK and Ireland suggest that more than half of those beginning their studies have experienced a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression at some point in their lifetime.

The uncertainty and changes to student life associated with the current pandemic add an additional challenge. Reports from earlier in lockdown indicated that students were coping well with working remotely and adapting to the online learning environment. However, ongoing restrictions, concerns about a second wave, job losses, a reduction in social activities and longer-term changes to the way student’s study and live may have longer term consequences on their mental health and wellbeing. Furthermore, the impact of the pandemic may exacerbate issues for those with pre-existing mental health problems. It is important therefore that universities recognise and acknowledge that the new academic year may be a difficult and challenging period for staff and students, and that they should work collaboratively to address the issues, identify students who may be at risk and provide support to those in need.

To assist students a number of resources have been developed nationally in response to the pandemic, recognising the need to provide alternative forms of support whilst studying remotely. For example, the Office for Students produced resources on the steps that universities are taking in order to support students during the pandemic (https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/coronavirus-briefing-note-supporting-student-mental-health/). Student Minds have also developed an innovative new platform, Student Space (https://studentspace.org.uk/). Wellbeing services within universities have also been expanded and adapted in order to meet the needs of students due to the restrictions to campus-based activities as a result of Covid-19.

Although there has been a necessary reduction in face to face sessions, Student Wellbeing continue to provide a wide range of support options at Ulster University. While the method of delivery of support has changed, students are continuing to access support. In fact, from 1st March to 31st July 2020, in comparison to figures from recent years, the number of students attending Student Wellbeing/mental health appointments increased by 32.5%. Research from our group and others has indicated that students may be reluctant to access on campus services for support for mental wellbeing, and for some being able to get support for mental health problems remotely could be preferable. For others, lack of face to face services will be challenging. The addition of remote sessions to the suite of services offered by Student Wellbeing could represent a positive long-term benefit that has come about as a result of the pandemic.

In the 2020/21 academic year Student Wellbeing will provide remote individual support appointments for students, with some on campus appointments available to meet immediate wellbeing crisis. Throughout semester 1, a series of online training events/workshops (such as mindfulness) will be available for students. Weekly ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’ webinars will be delivered on themes such as wellbeing online and settling into university. Furthermore, Togetherall, an online platform for students to learn how to manage their mental health, will be available 24/7, monitored by trained clinicians.

Whilst the pandemic has created a number of challenges and required universities to adapt quickly to provide alternative platforms for learning and teaching and wellbeing support for students, it has also provided an opportunity for innovation and new approaches that will be excellent additions to the current suite of services. The true impact of the COVID-19 and associated changes to student life on mental wellbeing will take some time to be realised but universities have adapted quickly to be in a position to continue to provide support as and when it is needed.


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