Whilst at Gold Leaf we believe it is alarmist – and not at all helpful – to call the present generation of students “lost” because of the impact of the pandemic and various lockdowns on their education – in our experience most young people are astonishingly brave and resilient – it has to be acknowledged that everyone who has enjoyed working for a degree in happier times must sympathise with their plight. Even though many universities around the world have done sterling work in supporting students as much as possible with online learning and blended learning and librarians have both rapidly increased their electronic holdings and made sure that academics and students are well-versed in using them, it cannot be denied that students are missing out on many of the things that make university special: for example, fieldwork expeditions and collaborative lab-work; trips to the theatre, concerts and art galleries and the other rich cultural experiences usually available to undergraduates; even simply hanging out with their peers. On top of this, students may be worried that degrees awarded under today’s restricted studying conditions may be “worth less” than “normal” and that even if the qualifications are recognised, there will be few jobs waiting for those who have qualified.
It is therefore not surprising that concern for students’ mental well-being has increased substantially throughout the past year. A significant amount of research has now been undertaken on this issue. One study, led by the University of Glasgow and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that thoughts of suicide among undergraduates encouraged by 8 – 10% in just three months. A survey conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that students now report considerably lower levels of personal well-being than the population as a whole. Dartmouth College, in the USA, detected spikes in student depression and anxiety as early as March 2020, when students were first encouraged to leave the campus and conduct most of their learning online. In January, French students organised a series of nationwide protests to draw attention to rising mental health problems caused by the pandemic. Special mental health counsellors appointed at the University of Lyon say they have been overwhelmed by the demands placed on their services. Two undergraduates at this university have already taken their own lives this year. An article in The Lancet points out that not much is known about the effects of large-scale pandemics on the health of children and adolescents. As well as having a profound impact on their education, social distancing may exacerbate the risk of other threats to young people, such as physical, mental or sexual abuse. If their parents lose their jobs, this also undermines their sense of security.
Last year UNESCO started its Minding our Minds campaign. Eric Falt, Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, wrote: “It will take all of our collective effort and focus to ensure that students are getting the care they need to succeed.” To highlight the importance of the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the mental health of marginalized communities, UNESCO New Delhi has created five awareness posters, which are available in four languages English, Hindi, Sinhala and Tamil.
Clearly undergraduate mental health is vitally important to everyone: today’s undergraduates will be the scientists, politicians, artists and writers of the future. Over the next few weeks, we are therefore planning to dig a little deeper into how some universities are supporting the mental health of their undergraduate communities. If, having read this post, you would like to contribute or comment, we shall be delighted to hear from you.
[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]