The impact of Covid-19 on student wellbeing

24 Feb 2021
By Jennifer Steadman, Higher Education Communications Executive at Unite Students
Last week, Unite Students shared the findings of our latest student survey. These highlighted students’ overwhelming desire to return to campus when it is safe to do so, and their preference to return to their student accommodation after Easter if possible. However, they also laid bare some stark findings on the impact of the past 12 months on students’ mental health and wellbeing.

Plenty has been made of the impact of lockdown on the mental wellbeing of primary and secondary school students. The amount of loneliness counselling provided by the NSPCC’s Childline service has risen 10% since the start of the pandemic, while NHS Digital and the Office for National Statistics’s Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020 report found that one in six children between 5 and 16 had been identified with a probable mental health disorder, up from one in nine in 2017 - in part due to the impact of Covid-19. Outgoing England children’s commissioner Anne Longfield has estimated that the cost of supporting children with their mental health, as well as helping them to catch up with their schooling, stands at £10 billion. While mental health is just one part of the picture, it is perhaps unsurprising that the reopening of schools is the UK government’s number one priority in its lockdown easing programme. 

However, university students’ mental health and wellbeing has also suffered during this time, exacerbating what had already been referred to as a crisis in the past few years. Of the 2,000 students surveyed for Unite Students by Yonder Data Solutions, 77% reported that they had struggled with mental health and wellbeing as a result of Covid-19, while 56% said they had experienced difficulties in making friends - rising to 70% in first-year students. 

A huge majority of those surveyed (86%) wanted to return to campus when it was safe to do so, and with that came some key social and wellbeing priorities. ‘Being with friends and peers’ (68%) was the second biggest priority for students likely to return to their accommodation for the final term of the year, while 42% chose ‘a better environment for my wellbeing and mental health’ as one of their priorities. 

We’ve recently written about how the Higher Education sector is in a better position to respond to the wellbeing challenges posed by Covid-19 than it was a decade ago, and Professor Steve West, the University of the West of England’s Vice Chancellor, wrote for us in November about the importance of prioritising students’ mental health and wellbeing going forward. It also bears mentioning that not every student has struggled in lockdown. 

But these findings show that the majority of students surveyed are feeling this way. Jenny Shaw, our Director of Customer Experience, recently shared her thoughts on the fundamental importance of community and friendships to the student experience at a Westminster Forum, citing our previous research on the subject and our ‘Unite Against Loneliness’ campaign from the autumn. Our statistics bear this out: the social restrictions rendered necessary to prevent the transmission of Covid-19 have hindered students in making friends, particularly for those just starting their university experience, while a significant draw of returning to university for the final term is the opportunity to be with friends and peers. 

There are some heartening findings as well. 84% of students surveyed agreed that engaging in university life has had a positive impact on their mental health, suggesting that while the past 12 months have been a struggle for students, university has been a benefit to them during that time. And 77% said they liked the greater independence that comes from living away from home - confirming the importance of the whole university experience for students. 

Read the full press release on the student survey here.

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Jen Steadman (she/her) is a Higher Education Communications Executive at Unite Students. Prior to this, she was the inaugural Editor of GSL News, covering the student experience for the higher education sector.