Coronavirus (COVID-19) higher education, further education and community learning and development: wider harms

This paper considers the indirect, wider harms of the pandemic on students, learners and staff within the Further Education, Higher Education and Community Learning and Development sectors from the perspective of stakeholders and drawing on the findings or relevant reports relating to these sectors.

3. Mental Health and Wellbeing

This section explores how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the mental health and wellbeing of FE/HE students and CLD learners. This paper uses The World Health Organisation’s definition that ‘mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community’ (10).

Understanding the determinants of worsening mental health is required. College representatives explained that prior to the pandemic, there was already concern about the deterioration in mental health and wellbeing amongst the student population, particularly in those from more disadvantaged backgrounds and vulnerable groups, exacerbated by a lower baseline in terms of mental health support being offered compared with other education sectors. Over the course of the pandemic, mental health and wellbeing amongst students and learners has further deteriorated. The lack of socialising and human interaction/connection as well as academic stresses and in many cases financial hardship have all affected this. Think Positive research, 2020, (11), involving over 3000 students in Scotland, identified that 48.9% of students believed lack of money and financial pressures had a negative impact on their mental health. The NUS Coronavirus Student Survey Phase 3, (4) stated that over half of the students surveyed indicated that their mental health was worse than it was pre-Covid-19 and cited a number of challenging wellbeing issues including isolation, loneliness, anxiety, inability to make new friends and depression. These concerns exist nationally. The Office for National Statistics survey Coronavirus and higher education students: England, 19 to 29 November 2021, (7) reported that of the students at English Universities surveyed, the proportion of students feeling lonely often or always was 14%, significantly higher than the adult population in Great Britain (6%), but not significantly different to the 16- to 29-year-old age group (10%) and the average life satisfaction score for students was 6.7, which was significantly lower than the adult population in Great Britain (7.1), but was not any different to the 16- to 29-year-old age group (6.7). Another Office of National Statistics survey Covid-19 Schools Infection Survey, England: mental health and Long Covid, November to December 2021, (12) provides further evidence of how within education, the pandemic has particularly affected socially disadvantaged young people of secondary school age and reports that a much greater proportion of secondary school pupils eligible for free school meals had a probable mental health disorder compared with those who were not eligible (28.3% compared with 12.4%).

There has been a cumulative impact on student mental health during this third academic year of disruption affecting many students and learners’ capacity to progress. Research recently published by the Mental Health Foundation, of over 15,000 students in Scotland (8) found that 74% reported low wellbeing and more students were dissatisfied with their learning than satisfied; nearly 20% of students reported suicidal ideation in the six months prior to the survey. Higher Education Student Data (HESA) (13) shows that in 2016-17, there were 1,920 entrants at Scottish Providers that declared a mental health condition, such as depression, schizophrenia or anxiety disorder, increasing to 3,050 declarations in 2018-19, 3,585 in 2019-20 and 4,495 in 2020-21. In rural student halls, it is reported that deterioration in mental health has contributed to an increase in substance misuse. Particular consideration should be given to student parents at college who require attention as they lack a division between home, work and study. The same goes for college students who are not undertaking practical courses and have had over a year of online study.

Student, college, university and CLD representatives expressed concerns about the level of mental health support available. The Royal College of Psychiatrists Mental Health of Higher Education Students report, May 2021, (14) highlights the clear links between student mental health and wellbeing and academic performance. The report includes recommendations to deliver improved and further integrated mental health and wellbeing services for students through increased collaboration between Higher Education Institutions and the NHS. Support for mental health and wellbeing is available via a range of providers and an Open Letter (15) from the Principals and Student Union Presidents of Scotland’s 19 universities assured students that mental health and wellbeing was a top priority in the 21/22 academic year with institutions seeking to establish whole institution approaches to support wider wellbeing. The NUS Coronavirus Student Survey Phase 3, November 2020 (4) found that around three in five students who sought mental health support, were satisfied with what they received. 23% of students had sought mental health support since the start of the pandemic and 33% were missing face-to-face pastoral support. The additional resource provided during the pandemic to support mental health and wellbeing by Scottish Government was welcomed. However, as it is only a short term measure, it is unclear how in the longer term institutions will be able to fully support those with mental health needs, and to offer equity of access across the education system. With an increasing number of students disclosing mental health issues and disabilities, resources are likely to be further stretched. University representatives described how out-of-hours mental health support could be highly beneficial for those students in need, but few institutions can offer this service. One option might be for organisations to share out-of-hours access to address this need. Where institutions are offering it, there has been a reported significant emotional toll on a typically small staff team that routinely deal with crisis cases.

CLD representatives reported that the reduction in face-to-face activity over the course of the pandemic has had a significant impact on learners’ mental health with many experiencing feelings of isolation, anxiety and reduced self-esteem, thus exacerbating already poor mental health outcomes especially in the most vulnerable. The inability and lack of opportunity to build relationships and socialise in a safe space could further create a divide between learners and their community. The Headlines from the Access to Facilities Survey October 2021 (9) by Youth Link Scotland explains that because of significantly reduced in-person learning due to a lack of available facilities for CLD provision, many young people are unable to access important relationships and much-needed support with health and wellbeing.



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