Today, March 5th, is University Mental Health Day in the UK. Run jointly by Student Minds and UMHAN, it’s an annual event that helps raise awareness of mental health in higher education.
University can be the best years of your life, but for many it can be a struggle. For some students, living away from home for the first time, they can feel isolated and alone as they navigate academic pressures alongside financial worries. It can be hard to cope, even for those without pre-existing mental health disorders.
In the process of researching the VitalSource report, From Selection to Satisfaction, students shared their stories. More than half of the current students and recent graduates interviewed had suffered some kind of crisis during their time at university and some of these had felt poorly supported by their institution. Seeking help, they experienced impersonal, automated application processes and long waiting times for counselling and other services.
Anne* had been an A grade student at school and received a scholarship to a Russell Group University. However, when she got there she struggled with the large amount of coursework and exams:
"It was a lot harder than I expected in terms of the intensity. The course. When you go to open days there doesn’t seem to be much differentiation, but I had friends who were second years at other universities doing the same course and it was very different. I had 10 exams and coursework. There’s a lot of pressure on that first year, it’s quite intense."
Despite the workload she felt she needed more than academic qualifications to get a job, and spent her summer working:
"I interned at a construction firm through summer and before going straight into the third year. I think you need a bit of a break. I didn’t actually go home from June until Christmas because I didn’t have the time. I was just stressed. When I went home at Christmas my mum took me to the GP. I went back to university for Jan exams and they didn’t offer any support at all. Mitigating circumstances forms are really not worth the paper they are written on. So I declined them. They didn’t mean anything and put more stress on me."
Although support mechanisms were in place at her university, she felt that they were disjointed and conflicted with her academic goals to the extent that that she couldn’t take advantage of them:
"I’ve never struggled. At school everyone was really approachable. At university office hours were 1 hour here and there. Asking for help via email was a waste of time. I didn’t expect to need support and then when I needed it, it wasn’t there. On the whole I think my course was pretty bad for support. In the 3 years I had at university, I had 5 academic advisors. There was support in place, but you had to jump through a lot of hoops. I didn’t really have time to access what they had on offer. If attendance fell below a certain % you can’t sit your exams. So if I go to counselling will I be able to sit my exams?"
Although Anne made it to the end of her course, with the grade outcomes she hoped for, she left university exhausted and disillusioned. She is now employed and studying for a further qualification.
Olivia* experienced similar problems at a different Russell Group university:
"I had a pre-existing mental health condition and was very anxious. There were long waiting lists for support. My head of module was also my seminar tutor and personal tutor, which made it difficult to report problems. He told us not to book contact hours with him as he was too busy and only worked part time. I needed help in that module and he should have been the perfect person, but instead I felt there was no-one I could go to. My tutor has now changed, I think I am onto my fourth one.
It all came to a head in my second year. I had panic attacks on the day of the exam. I had to apply for mitigation an hour after the exam. Was denied mitigation and charged £500 to retake them. There was no personal touch, just a message saying ‘If you do not pay we will reconsider your position at the university'."
Olivia has now left the university.
So, how can technology help?
The students I spoke to raised a number of issues which affected their mental health and wellbeing.
Firstly, the hierarchy in universities discourages students from reporting problems with academic staff, particularly as they suspect that no action will be taken to improve academic behaviour. Perhaps there is a need for anonymous reporting tools, similar to the British University Sports association initiative to counter harmful initiation ceremonies. There is also potential for digital tools to make it easier for students to continue to study when their anxiety makes it difficult for them to engage with face to face learning.
Secondly, students felt that they were alone with their problems. Feelings of loneliness and isolation are common. Support services were provided, but were not designed around their needs and lifestyles. It is critical that students do not feel that looking after their mental health is incompatible with achieving their academic goals.
Digital Learning and Engagement
When addressing the issue of education technology, academics are often concerned that it will increase the isolation faced by students. For instance, lecture capture tools and the ability to watch and re-watch difficult content can be beneficial for students who have special educational needs, have English as a second language, or are simply struggling with the material. However, lecturers worry that these online tools make it more difficult to spot problems early. Some universities are now exploring how learning analytics can help identify students that are struggling or disengaged.
Providing students with digital course materials that are accessible online, either their own copy or via a library, can make life easier for many students. For students on a tight budget it is one less cost to worry about. For commuter students, those on placements and degree apprenticeships, they have the reassurance that they can access their books whenever they need them, without having to be on campus. Students suffering from anxiety value the ability to access online resources as this enables them to study even when they don’t feel emotionally able to come to campus. Digital content can also make life easier for students with disabilities and additional learning needs, so long as you select a supplier that is serious about accessibility. VitalSource works with organisations such as the W3C, the Centre for Accessible Materials Innovation, and the EDUPUB Alliance (EPUB for Education), and collaborates with consultants and advocacy groups, such as the National Federation of the Blind, JISC, Tech for All, and others to grow the community and the capabilities of each part of the system.
"I ended up having a thing about the library. I found it quite hard to study. It was so silent and so tense. What I found really useful was the online library – that was really useful for last minute panics and needing resources."
– English student, University of Exeter
Social media can encourage competition and unrealistically high standards as students try to present their ‘best self’. It can be particularly challenging for those who are exploring their identity or using their university transition as an opportunity to reinvent themselves. High levels of use have been linked to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, and reduced self-esteem.
However, social media is core to students’ lives – and also has positive effects, particularly for those students that actively engage socially. Students use social media to stay in touch with friends and family from home as well. They are also key to building new social support networks at university – Freshers' Week alone is not enough. Friends and coursemates are often the first port of call when students have worries. Many institutions encourage housemates and course groups to connect online before they come to university to make transition less painful. Students who don’t click with their housemates can search online for society and department events.
For some students, face to face meet-ups may be challenging. This may be because of mental health issues or physical disabilities, because of other responsibilities such as work or caring, or because money is tight. Online learners, commuter students and those who are not regularly on campus may feel more isolated. It is to recognise this and develop a digital infrastructure that helps them to connect with one another and to the institution. My own experience of studying online suggests that induction is critical. Encouraging students to set up Facebook groups for studying and cohort wide WhatsApp channels makes it easy for students to get academic and emotional support from their peers any time of day or night. Of course it is always important to establish appropriate online etiquette and make it easy to report inappropriate behaviour.
Availability of services
Compared to other young people, students are significantly less likely to be happy and more likely to be anxious. Many universities are finding that demand for mental health services exceeds supply. Research suggests that around a third feel that, for one reason or another, they can’t reach out to their university support team. Those that do face limitations and barriers such as a cap on sessions or long waiting times.
Students bank online, shop online and track their physical fitness via apps, but almost half of students report being able to access their university health and wellbeing services online. Online services can’t replace face-to-face support, but they can ensure that students can immediately access help when they need it.
The NHS offers a list of mental health apps that have been assessed and approved, many of which are free. One of these is The Student Health App which has been developed specifically by NHS doctors for university students, and includes mental health support. It can be customised to signpost students to your university’s local services.
For students’ in Higher Education in 2020, technology is simply part of their daily life. Used well, it offers the potential for universities to provide a better framework that helps students when they need it. From delivering content to the early identification of problems, tech has the power to help universities understand and support their most vulnerable students. And it can also provide students with a safe, anonymous and immediate route that enables them to seek help when they need it most.
*Names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of interviewees