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Student mental wellbeing is a top risk for universities due to COVID-19, according to PwC research

Students’ mental wellbeing is one of the top risks facing Higher Education Institutions, according to new research by PwC.

PwC reviewed the risk registers of 22 higher education institutions in the UK, and mental wellbeing is ranked the fourth greatest risk in terms of impact and likelihood, behind cyber security, COVID-19 and the student experience. According to PwC’s Managing Risk in Higher Education report, mental wellbeing of students occurs on 50% of university risk registers. 

The research is published on University Mental Health Day, Thursday 4 March, which is run jointly by Student Minds and the University Mental Health Advisors Network (UMHAN) to bring together the university community to make mental health a university-wide priority, to create ongoing change to the future of student mental health.

As students adapt to new ways of living and studying, including remote and blended learning, and potential periods of self isolation, pressure on their mental health and wellbeing is a growing concern.

A study by the Office for National Statistics showed that more than half (53%) of students said their wellbeing and mental health has worsened as a result of the pandemic. Similarly, research from Mind showed that half (49%) of 18–24 year old university students said difficulties accessing support made their mental health worse. 

To address the mental health risks, universities are developing and strengthening links between support service teams and student facing staff in faculties and departments, supplemented by the provision of training and resources for staff to better enable them to appropriately signpost, refer or support students.

One university providing additional mental health support to students and staff as a result of the effects of the pandemic is Birmingham-based Aston University. The university is working with PwC to deliver mental health training to staff and students to help normalise the access to mental health support among peer groups.

Through two-hour workshops staff in front-line roles, including fees teams, personal tutors, student union representatives, are receiving training to increase mental health literacy to help them support students and colleagues with mental wellbeing. This group based training is centred around increasing awareness of mental health issues, removing barriers and increasing confidence to ask for help.

Alec Cameron, Vice-Chancellor of Aston University, said:

“We place a great deal of importance on the mental health and wellbeing of our students and staff at Aston.  This past year in particular has been an exceptionally challenging time, but our Welfare Team has been working incredibly hard to meet the needs of our students.  Working with PwC has enabled us to extend our offering, giving our academic and professional staff skills to support our students and each other in this increasingly significant aspect of university life.”

Sally Holgate, head of student welfare at Aston University, said:

“With rising numbers of students reporting mental distress, it is increasingly clear that mental health awareness and wellbeing is everyone’s concern within universities, and not just that of pastoral services. Whilst longer, more intensive mental health intervention workshops are available, we feel it essential to offer shorter, yet highly interactive workshops that are accessible to everyone within our institution.”

Safia-Atiya Ahmed, Student Union vice president for welfare, at Aston University, added:

“Considering the pandemic, we have seen a particular increase in students themselves willing to participate in mental health awareness training to not only support themselves, but their peers and loved ones around them. This has been a driving factor in facilitating conversations surrounding mental health and wellbeing on university campuses across the country, allowing for more transparent and honest conversations to be had.”

Cat McCusker, education leader at PwC, said:

“Increasing concerns are quite rightly being raised around the mental wellbeing of students enrolled in Higher Education as a result of the pandemic. We have seen the focus by universities on the mental wellbeing of students growing for a number of years, however social isolation and reduced access to mental health support during the pandemic has exacerbated the issues facing students.

“Universities have had to react quickly and adapt the support mechanisms on offer to ensure these can be accessed by students on and off campus. PwC has been delivering mental health group training and e-learn sessions to our staff based across the UK. As a firm we recognise the importance of mental health advocacy, so we are building on our long term association with The Samaritans to produce a team activity for Aston University to roll-out with their staff and students.”

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