Why student mental health must be our priority in 2021

2020 has been full of academic and emotional turmoil – next year students need more support than ever, says this leader
18th December 2020, 12:34pm
Andrea Cowans


Why student mental health must be our priority in 2021

Covid & Mental Health: Why Fe College Students Need Teachers' Support

Things seem to be moving in the right direction with vaccination breakthroughs but the rise in Covid-19 cases and discussions about Christmas restrictions are ongoing. Students continue to suffer from the mental strain of the pandemic and we need to readjust our focus and concentrate on monitoring the wellbeing of our learning communities.

It's no secret that Covid-19 has created major issues for further and higher education. A National Union of Students (NUS) survey showed that over 50 per cent of students reported a slump in their mental health since the pandemic began, and concerns such as climate change and the impact of Black Lives Matters campaigns are also affecting young people. 

We need to address the factors contributing to students' mental health and help them overcome these challenges. If we don't act now, we risk a negative impact on academic achievement and career prospects, low motivation and dropouts.

Need to know: 5 ways to support students at risk of suicide 

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The first lockdown brought about unprecedented change to education as schools, colleges and universities shut their doors indefinitely. Students adapted to remote learning, which created worry about how to engage remotely or missing work alongside the widespread issues of poor digital access for many students. 

Although education has now adapted to a blended learning approach, with a combination of face-to-face and remote learning, students are still struggling with less physical interaction and fewer opportunities to engage with the wider enrichment offer, which can lead to decreased motivation. 

Supporting student mental health

A survey of 130 UK academics found that 96 per cent of them had seen mental health problems amongst their students. Often students feel more comfortable discussing emotional issues with personal tutors who they know and trust, so providing these tutors with mental health training will enable them to manage the situation and offer the appropriate advice. 

The transition to online learning has perpetuated digital poverty divides, leaving students without a suitable device feeling worried and marginalised. Students without access to digital devices and experiencing connectivity issues are at a disadvantage, with a detrimental impact on learning and contributing to feelings of isolation and anxiety about what is expected of them. We need to look at planning resources differently, to ensure there is capacity to support students with the tools to complete their work. 

Remote learning has been particularly challenging for learners in key points of transition. Year 11 students face the stress of exams and the pressure to achieve, and for those who progress to further education or sixth-form colleges, the pandemic has prevented much of the usual face-to-face transition and career pathway support. 

As colleges have moved their open days and interviews online, students are choosing courses without visiting to see facilities, meet peers and be inspired by the choices they can make in vocational and technical learning pathways. 

In missing out on the opportunity for face-to-face conversations, our young people and their parents have a limited network to fall back on for career advice. This generation of young people is at greater risk of long-term unemployment as an effect of starting their careers in an economic downturn.

Remote learning is here to stay, so we must do what we can to address the lack of social interaction for students and provide them with a sense of belonging. It's important that we create virtual alternatives to wellbeing activities to help students build relationships with peers and teachers.

Making wellbeing a priority

Over the past nine months, I've seen thousands of students positively engaging in digital enrichment activities, including clubs, debates, guest speakers and a full programme of events to mark Black History Month. For many students, these activities have helped in overcoming feelings of anxiety and loneliness.

Christmas and the new year will be challenging for many students - as buildings close, they lose access to the protective factors of being at school or college. Education often acts as a safety net for learners and whether students struggle with family issues, live independently or suffer from the added pressure of Christmas, the closure of college for two weeks can lead to feelings of isolation. We need to prioritise the signposting of support services to our students so they're aware of where they can seek help and advice if needed. 

2021 needs to mark the start of a refreshed agenda which places the wellbeing of young people at the heart of our organisations. Addressing the student mental health crisis needs to be a priority and we must work towards creating a landscape of opportunities that reframes mental health in a more positive light. 

Andrea Cowans is the director of student life at Luminate Education Group

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