Navigating exams, applications and choosing the right university is an age-old stress for young adults. Going to university in the aftermath of a global pandemic, however, is going to be a whole new experience.

A recent survey by YoungMinds, addressing parents and carers of young people up to the age of 25, found that 67 per cent of respondents were concerned about the long-term impact of coronavirus on their child’s mental health. They recorded increased anxiety and depression, as well as a sense of loss and fear about what will happen next. In terms of their main concerns, respondents cited ‘transitioning back to normality’ and ‘access to services during and after the lockdown’ amongst others.

Unlike schools, universities operate independently and must determine their own path through the current circumstances. Many, including Cambridge University, have announced an entirely digital academic year for 2020/ 2021. This cohort have already been at home for months, missing their A-Levels and end of year celebrations. Many are speculating about virtual freshers’ week and lectures via Zoom — but where will this leave vulnerable students?

A group of professors at Portsmouth University have recently published a study into mental health literacy and help-seeking behaviours in 300 students from UK universities. Sadly, 78 per cent of participants indicated mild or more severe symptoms of distress.

The study aimed to understand how well young people understood symptoms of poor mental health and where they could go for help. The survey determined that those with a history of mental health symptoms and disorders had far greater mental health literacy and were more likely to know how to address their symptoms, compared to those who might be experiencing poor mental health for the first time. (If you are currently struggling with your mental health and are in need of support, try therapy today and get the help you deserve.)

The tumultuous change that comes with going to university, often taking students out of their comfort zone, means it is common for illnesses such as depression or anxiety to emerge at this point. If the ‘new normal’ means operating all services online for the foreseeable future, there’s undoubtedly a risk that suffering students will slip through the cracks in university support systems.

The circumstances are likely to result in many students living at home, at least for the beginning of their university course. Studying from their bedrooms will mean little change from lockdown life, which raises concerns as the survey concludes that students are more likely to seek help from mental health professionals than parents, and more likely to turn to intimate partners and friends than religious leaders/ ministers or a help-line.

On the other hand, responses to the survey suggest more confidence with using online resources for mental health support, as opposed to face-to-face resources. Stigma around seeking help and attending counselling can be a major deterrent when it comes to young people using support services for mental health.

Dr. Paul Gorczynski, co-author of the study, concluded:

‘Our findings showed that although students struggled with identifying and describing symptoms of poor mental health, such as symptoms of depression or anxiety, an overwhelming majority knew where they could access mental health resources and support, especially online services. As we move toward an online delivery of university services this next academic year, this is something to remain hopeful about’.

Shifting everything online during the pandemic has pros and cons, but one positive effect may be young people seeking help when they would have been afraid to before. Childline works with children up to the age of 19 and has been offering a hugely popular counselling service over the phone. The charity said at the end of May that they are giving a counselling session roughly once every five minutes and delivered 43 per cent of last year’s total sessions within just seven weeks of lockdown.

The Office for Students has been publishing advice for universities during the pandemic. Their website says:

‘many universities and colleges are adapting their existing mental health and wellbeing support services to meet the needs of their students during the pandemic. This has included moving face-to-face services online or via phone, expanding existing digital or phone services or procuring new services’.

The results of the study on help-seeking behaviours show willingness from students to access support online. The digital era is highly advanced for delivering to people’s needs, but it is a worrying unknown how these changes to university life might affect the mental health of young people in the first place. Recent surveys and studies already testify to the impact of coronavirus and the lockdown on this generation.

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