From education to employment

Grasping At The Root of the Student Mental Health Crisis

Larissa Kennedy, NUS National President

The Student Mental Health Crisis 

Covid-19 has exacerbated the fundamental flaws in our education system that contribute to, and are complicit in, the student mental health crisis. At NUS, our research has found that over 50% of students say their mental health has deteriorated or been affected negatively by the pandemic, yet we often see Covid-19’s impact on this crisis spoken about in isolation from its root causes. We know that with a collapsing job market, insufficient student finance and extortionate rents, 73% of students are concerned about how they will manage financially, and 9% have already needed to access food banks.

Financial Hardship

At a recent demonstration about the financial exploitation of students throughout Covid-19, there were placards that read “How many suicides does it take for [this university] to show some compassion?” Their message rings clear: the systems that are producing students’ financial hardship are producing the student mental health crisis, too.

The impacts of this systemic brokenness have not fallen equally: marginalised students’ hardship during this pandemic has a direct impact on these students’ mental health. International students are navigating this unprecedented time with no recourse to public funds; parents and carers are juggling these responsibilities alongside the pandemic and their studies.

Marginalised Students

Many disabled students have had limited access to assistive technologies they need to access their education, and with lots of students residing in their non-term time accommodation, several LGBTQ+ students are navigating this time stuck in homophobic and/or transphobic home environments.

Working class students and students of colour are disproportionately in overcrowded households, often with no quiet space to learn; the latter are also doing so without access to culturally competent care. None of this is divisible from the student mental health crisis. The past year has further exemplified that students are not a homogenous group. Covid-19 has furthered pre-existing institutional racism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia in our institutions and our medical services, mental health services are not exempt from this. Our institutions must take proactive steps to eradicate the active erasure of such marginalisation. Our students’ lives depend on it.

Student Interests before Institutional Interests

Institutions must take proactive steps to centre students’ lived experiences, not the interests of the institution. Covid-19 has demonstrated that services designed to support students’

Larissa Kennedy and Tiana Holgate: Grasping at the Root of the Student Mental Health Crisis

wellbeing are not robust enough and not sufficiently integrated to fulfil their purpose and thus must be adjusted in the form of: better staffing, funding and communications. Students are individuals experiencing huge hardship, not customers. Recognising this would be a small step towards improvement. If people are serious about a whole institution approach to mental health, then let us look at issues of debt, affordability, housing insecurity and quality.


For decades, isolation, anxiety and poor material conditions have been adversely affecting the mental health of students which in turn has negative impact on learning. Covid-19 has made matters worse. Government and institutions need to recognise how the negative impact of isolation and anxiety on the mental health of students impacts on their capacity to engage in the ways that institutions demand.

Recommendation 1

We need to reverse the chronic underfunding of mental health services. NHS mental health services must be equipped to sustain communication with students and respond to their needs on a case-by-case basis.

Recommendation 2

Institutions must help students to navigate the mental health system more easily given its complexity and levels of bureaucracy. They must take a structural approach to culturally competent care and reflect on how their infrastructure can be adapted in order to equip services and staff with the resources they need to support the needs of all students, not just a few.

Recommendation 3

Institutions must grasp at the root of the student mental health crisis. This must include advocating for a systemic approach to fully funded, lifelong, accessible education, starting with:

  • improving the accessibility and affordability of student housing, and bolstering student renters’ rights,
  • alleviating student debt and lobbying for the reintroduction of maintenance grants, and
  • investing in student-led initiatives that seek to dismantle structural marginalisation.

By Larissa Kennedy and Tiana Holgate NUS

Understanding and Overcoming a Mental Health Crisis in 2021

This article is from the new publication Understanding and Overcoming a Mental Health Crisis in 2021: issues for post-16 education, employment, the world of work and retirement’. 

Some of the issues and concerns for mental health discussed existed prior to the pandemic, but Covid-19 has caused additional pressures on young people and adults. 

The authors make specific recommendations to support apprentices and students at colleges, university and in adult learning, as well as people in and out of work.

The important role of education, lifelong learning and good work in promoting mental wellbeing and reducing mental health problems is also addressed. 

Published by the Campaign for Learning, it brings together sixteen specialists from mental health and post-16 education and employment to set out what needs to be done to prevent or limit a mental health crisis in 2021. 


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