By guest writer Olivia Wood
The issue of student mental health over the winter can incorporate three separate but connected issues: that of student mental health in general, that of winter-specific mental health concerns, and the impact of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic on mental health.
A recent survey from the Office for Students (OfS) reported that more than half of UK university and college students feel their mental wellbeing hasn’t been supported enough by their educational institutions in the last year. This prompted the head of the OfS, Nicola Dandridge, to announce that more must be done in this area.
Winter is an important time to take action. After all, according to NHS inform, “the winter blues, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), affects around 2 million people in the UK.” That’s before you even consider the challenge of declining student mental health in the UK as well as the impact of COVID-19, which research has found to be devastating on young people’s mental health (OECD, ONS, Mental Health Innovations).
Here are five ways universities can support student mental health over the winter.
1. Identify at-risk students before the winter break
Universities hold information that can be used to predict potential mental health issues. For example, if a student is disengaging from their academic activities, this could be a sign of underlying problems.
Remote learning poses a challenge for university staff as it reduces their opportunities to notice changed student behaviours in person. However, online academic activities can also provide useful data that helps universities identify at-risk students.
Solutionpath recommends analysing patterns of individual student participation in order to uncover the subtle changes in student behaviours. If the system shows that a student hasn’t accessed the library for months, has failed to deliver coursework or hasn’t attended online classes, this should prompt universities to reach out and offer additional support.
2. Connect students with mental health resources
Students should receive clear guidance on where to go to access mental health support. Shout 85258 provides several student support resources on its website that connect students to mental health conversation starters. Their Student Support page lists credible online resources and provides related content on different coping strategies for managing mental health as a student.
University staff members can also benefit from additional information and training on mental health, such as a Mental Health First Aid course (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and interactive workshops to build resilience and wellbeing (Mental Health Innovations and Hive Learning), as well as from sharing their best practices for promoting the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff.
Alternatively, universities can develop their own resources. For example, the University of Aberdeen has an online wellbeing toolkit that includes online support groups, resources, events and relevant podcast recommendations.
3. Cater to students who remain on campus
Although most students head home for the holidays, universities should pay close attention to those who stay, for example, international students. They may be at particular risk of experiencing loneliness and isolation during this period.
It’s especially important to plan events over the holidays; for example, you might organise a Christmas dinner for students in halls of residence. You can also signpost to local events or offer informal drop-in sessions where students can meet for a chat.
Last year, the University of Nottingham offered a “Covid-secure hub in the East Midlands Conference Centre and Jubilee Hall to be a welcoming space that students can use to study, purchase a snack, eat or relax outside of their accommodation” over the winter break.
4. Promote and facilitate good self-care habits
As recognised by the Met Office, over winter “we might feel the need to sleep for longer, notice a change in our appetite, or find that things we normally do, like going to the gym or socialising with friends, are a struggle.” The problem is that abandoning our good habits can make us feel even worse.
It’s important for universities to promote and facilitate good self-care habits. This could be achieved through a range of creative methods, like an online healthy recipe club with incentives for those who participate. Universities could also offer free access to their sports facilities or provide winter fitness classes online.
Social media can be used to share messages around maintaining good mental health. The festive season can be a period of overindulgence, so students may benefit from advice and information about alcohol consumption, for example.
5. Provide financial support and advice
Most of us feel financial pressure over the festive season and that’s especially relevant for students, as NUS research has found that 36% of students worry about their finances so much that it is affecting their mental health. Where possible, universities could address this issue by offering and promoting hardship funds as well as providing money management advice for students who are struggling.
Although students aren’t in classes for much of winter, it is important that universities still support students’ mental health throughout the season.
If you are a college or university student and you are struggling to cope this winter, text ‘STUDENT’ to 85258 for immediate, 24/7 support from a trained volunteer. It is free, private, confidential and won’t show up on your phone bill.
You can also visit the Student Space website for a range of tips, advice and resources to support your mental health. Student Space is run by Student Minds and funded by the OfS and Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.