Mental health challenges for students have only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst much of the UK has been affected by the pandemic in one-way or another, students that are set to graduate in Summer 2022 will have experienced most of their university life living through the pandemic.
By Neil Smith, UK and IE Managing Director, Scape
At arguably the most important point in a young person’s life, the pandemic has meant that these students have faced extra stresses and tough challenges over the past two years; on top of working to complete their higher education degrees.
For this cohort, remote working, not being able to socialise properly with friends, and studying alone – either in isolation or by being confined to their rooms – became the norm throughout their initial years at university. The effect this has had on students’ emotional wellbeing is still largely unknown, however it’s worth noting that if left untreated, mental health issues at a young age can go on to affect people throughout their lifetimes.
It is crucial therefore that student accommodation providers and universities continue to do their utmost to support students’ mental health in this period. Measures and initiatives put in place during the lockdowns to prioritise and protect student wellbeing should not now be forgotten, or lack focus, as we start to move further away from enforced safety guidelines in the UK.
Student wellbeing and the role of PBSA operators
As an accommodation provider, supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing is both the right and logical thing to do. A report published by the NHS Confederation titled ‘Reaching the tipping point: children and young people’s mental health’ identifies how demand for mental health support for children and young people across all services has already grown since the pandemic, with the number of young people contacting mental health services rising by nearly a third in the last year.
While we are no longer in lockdown, the recent spike in Omicron cases has meant that many have been, or currently are isolating, leaving them unable to socialise or attend lectures and classes in person. Even though there are now far fewer formal restrictions, this ongoing uncertainty is likely to have a continued impact on their mental health.
For many young people, some of which may have faced serious challenges during the pandemic, such as bereavement and loss, as well as added family and financial pressures, positive mental wellbeing might be an even bigger challenge during this period.
A generation of young people requiring support for their mental health risk end up feeling overlooked due to the lack of support and service that’s being provided to them in these times of need. For this reason, at Scape we felt that it was important to take matters into our own hands, where we could, and do our bit to support our residents and their wellbeing needs.
Measures that can be implemented by PBSA operators
Whilst it isn’t our role as a purpose-built accommodation provider to directly provide the care services that the NHS or other expert professionals can provide to young people, we must play our part in looking after the safety of the young people who live in our residences.
PBSA providers should demonstrate a passion for bringing people together – shared spaces and experiences foster feelings of belonging to a community and connectedness to others around them.
There are many opportunities for us as an accommodation provider to encourage students to interact in the nurturing environment that accommodation provides, for example through socials or focus groups for students to voice their opinions. Events and initiatives like this demonstrate that you’re providing far more than a room: you are providing an active community that is there for support.
Apps and services
At Scape, we also have an app that allows our residents to contact a residential manager, trained in mental health, for support at any time of day and from the comfort of their own room. Once contact has been made by a student, advice and guidance is provided by one of our 65 mental health trained staff, and referrals to a psychologist can also be made if needed. Scape has also partnered with mental health platform, Togetherall, to offer courses dedicated to helping support the mental health of our residents. We would also actively encourage students to seek help by calling an appropriate helpline that can deal with and recognise mental health issues.
Student Minds partnership
Scape partners with Student Minds, the student mental health charity and we would encourage universities and student accommodation providers looking for further guidance to contact this charity. Student Minds works closely with the university community to enable staff and students to not only look after their own mental health but to support others around them. They work with students across the UK to provide peer support groups and research-driven campaigns to create change in university communities.
Safeguarding by universities and accommodation providers
It is also important that student accommodation providers and universities spot the early signs of a student suffering with mental health issues – before the health condition worsens. At Scape we have ensured that our front of house teams are mental health first aid trained so that they are able to acknowledge and notice students who are suffering, as well as know how to step in to help.
We believe that these types of wellbeing initiatives are key to looking after the mental health of students and ensure they remain comfortable in their student accommodation. It is also important that student accommodation providers work with universities and wider support services to get the most up to date information to ensure residents are appropriately safeguarded.
Many young people are developing mental health problems as a direct result of the pandemic, and with Covid-19 cases expected to rise as we head into the new year, we cannot stand by and give way to another mental health crisis amongst the young.
The continued strength of our sector demonstrates how important the sense of community, and the improved wellbeing that comes as a result, is to communal living and a good student experience. As a student accommodation provider, we will continue to do our utmost to ensure that we focus on initiatives to protect the mental wellbeing of our students, and we encourage other student accommodation providers and universities to do the same.