Student mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

 In Mental Health

In recent years there has been a worrying trend of increasing mental illness among higher education students in the UK. With this year’s crop of students starting or returning to University in September, after months of uncertainty about what studying for a degree will look like during the COVID-19 pandemic, prioritising student mental health is more important than ever.

Increasing pressures

University or higher education can be a time where young people can thrive and come out with a qualification that will stand them in good stead of getting their dream job. However, with the changing landscape of university over recent years, students can face many challenges or pressures that can lead to mental health issues, and an extensive study into university student mental health in 2020 found that 1 in 5 students had a current mental health diagnosis.

Overall participation in higher education has increased from only 4% of school leavers in early 1960 to more than 40% of young people now starting undergraduate degrees. Therefore, with the sheer number of people going to university, the inherent value of having a degree has been diluted and the importance of achieving a good grade has increased exponentially. This can increase stress for students, and although stress isn’t a mental health condition, it can lead to mental health problems, like depression and anxiety.

Financing a degree is another source of stress for students, with the growing cost of degrees putting even more pressure on students to succeed. Currently the maximum a university can charge for being on a course is £9,250 per year, leading to a debt of £27,750 from a standard 3-year degree from tuition fees alone, not including rent, food and other living costs. This is a lot of pressure to put on an 18 year old, leaving home and managing their finances for the first time.

Also, the Mental Health Foundation suggests that student suicides have increased by 79% from 2007 to 2015. Couple this statistic with the increasing pressures on students, there is cause for concern regarding students’ mental well-being.

Uncertainty in the student experience

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new challenges as universities switch to online classes and new ways of working. Exams have been cancelled or delayed and social distancing measures mean that students may not be able to fully immerse themselves in the social experience.

What does the recent NUS study tell us about student’s wellbeing?

An NUS study from September 2020 gives us an insight into how students are coping during the Corona Virus pandemic. 60 percent of students reported low self-esteem and students are more likely to have experienced feelings of isolation during this period, with 73 percent of students interacting less with students from their institution, 72 percent less with their course mates and 59 percent less with their friends.

Financial pressures have increased, with three in five students saying that Coronavirus has had some degree of impact upon their income – and one in five reporting a ‘major impact’.

Online learning has also presented difficulties for some students, with 1 out of 3 students who were provided with online learning by their institution last term reporting that they were unable to access their education.

Anxiety about contracting the corona virus was another issue for students, with 13% of respondents saying that they were ‘very scared’ about contracting the corona virus, and this response was more likely among mature students, female students, disabled students and those with caring responsibilities.

Overall, this survey and findings from other resources highlight that institutions need to ensure that their students feel supported and have access to the mental health services they need.

How can you cope with the increasing pressures of university?

With this in mind, here are a few best practice tips from the NHS to help students cope with the stresses of University:

  • Assess exactly what in your life is making you stressed. For example, is it exams, money or relationship problems? See if you can change your circumstances to ease the pressure you’re under.
  • Try to have a healthier lifestyle. Eat well, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, cut down on alcohol and spend some time relaxing as well as working and studying.
  • Try not to worry about the future or compare yourself with others.
  • Relaxation and breathing exercises may help.
  • Try talking to a friend, tutor or someone in your family.

If problems persist, then students should contact their University mental health services or seek help from a medical professional.


  1. University Student Mental Health Survey 2020 by The Insight Network and Dig-In
  7. National Union of Students (NUS) COVID-19 & Students Survey: Phase II, September 2020
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