Student well-being ‘worse than healthcare staff’ during pandemic

Study finds that students experienced psychological distress levels more than three times worse than before the pandemic

June 19, 2023
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Students in the UK suffered worse levels of psychological distress during the Covid-19 pandemic than some healthcare professionals, according to the results of a new study.

Undergraduate students also reported significantly lower levels of well-being, happiness and life satisfaction compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Researchers from the University of Bolton tracked 554 undergraduates across the sector over a one-year period between May 2020 – when the UK was in its seventh week of lockdown – and May 2021 – when the country was at Step 3 of its roadmap out of lockdown restrictions.

Students were also asked about their mental health and well-being in June and July 2020, when lockdown measures were beginning to ease, and November and December, when stricter lockdown restrictions were introduced in the run-up to Christmas.

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Published in the British Journal of Educational Studies, the results showed that students’ levels of distress were three times higher than pre-pandemic levels, with periods of rising numbers of Covid-19 cases and of lockdown and intense confinement also associated with poorer mental well-being.

The data showed that students’ scores were consistently higher than those of some healthcare professionals, which were measured using the same scoring system in separate studies.

“Often in small student accommodation rooms, undergraduates were cut off from friends and close family, and unable to rely on their usual routes for seeking physical or emotional support,” said Chathurika Kannangara, an associate teaching professor at Bolton and co-author of the report.

“In addition, common entertainment and socialisation facilities such as restaurants, bars and clubs were closed for long periods – completely stripping away the normal social aspect of university life.”

Conversely, periods of the pandemic that saw the relaxing of rules and restrictions saw a slight improvement in the moods of students.

The study also found that both students’ well-being and happiness – how much they “flourished” – declined significantly between May 2020 and May 2021.

According to co-author Jerome Carson, the very ingredients that contribute to flourishing and happiness were stripped away.

“For example, students experienced heightened loneliness and social isolation, which we know are linked to lower levels of flourishing,” he added.

“Likewise, building and maintaining healthy and effective relationships, a fundamental part of flourishing mental health, were obstructed due to social distancing measures.”

The authors suggested that, considering the lasting and widespread changes to higher education since the Covid-19 pandemic, more needed to be done to support students physically, mentally and academically. 

“There is clear evidence that the mental health needs of university students in the UK have increased since the outbreak of Covid-19,” they wrote.

They recommend the introduction of new mental health services accessible via social media platforms or mobile phone applications, which “could combat the stigma associated with seeking professional help and would alleviate the strain on overwhelmed mental health services”.

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