The importance of supporting students' mental health and wellbeing online, not only during lockdown but at all times
There is no denying that university life can be stressful for many, at the best of times. Students are being forced to navigate a new environment, adapt to the move away from teacher-led classroom learning towards self-motivated study, and remain on top of the seemingly endless stream of looming deadlines.
For some, these issues subside, but for others, these challenges can begin to take a toll. A recent University Health study found that 80% of students felt stressed and overworked on an ongoing basis. On top of this, the largest-ever mental health poll of university students, conducted by the Insight Network in which 38,000 UK students were polled, concluded that the rates of psychological distress and illness are on the rise in universities.
Unfortunately, the problem isn’t just limited to the students. A poll by Education Support, a charity that gives mental health help to education professionals, suggested that more than three-quarters of professionals in higher education also feel continuous stress in their job.
With this in mind, a number of universities have begun to take the vital steps needed to make mental health a top priority on campus offering a high standard of mental health support for both students and their teaching staff. At Kara Connect we have been working with organisations and institutions across Europe to ensure mental health support is made easily available and accessible to all who need it.
Councillors at Reykjavik University, for example, have been empowered by the platform to help support students online. This means that no matter where a student is located, they are able to access the support they need, and schedule remote sessions at times that are convenient.
During this unprecedented time, however, the need for further education institutions to provide continued support has become even more pertinent. For many, COVID-19 will exacerbate pre-existing conditions, while others may start feeling a dip in their mental health for the first time.
Continue to find balance through mindfulness
At this time, creating stability and a daily routine is more important than ever and this holds true for everyone, regardless of their history with mental health. For students, in particular, studies have found that taking regular breaks throughout the day to relax and reboot is essential for achieving productivity and reducing feelings of stress. This is especially important as a number of students will now be working for long hours in front of a computer screen.
As well as encouraging students to follow government guidelines and engage in one form of outdoor exercise a day, where possible, universities can also help by providing a list of resources to students to help them factor in regular breaks and divide their days up with varying activities.
Practising meditation, for example, can help students strengthen their focus and boost their overall health, while at the same time reducing anxiety or frustrations. Online tools, such as Headspace and Buddhify, can give great direction. Audiobook and podcasting apps can also be a great way to unwind for some and focus their thoughts on other things.
A lot of students will also struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness as the day-to-day social interaction that comes with university life begins to abate. Where possible, course leaders should encourage students to engage in peer-to-peer work outside of allotted class time. This will also help to build campus culture online as well as promote a more collaborative way of learning.
Continued support special education needs
As well as receiving the ongoing support of lecturers and tutors, some students also rely on the physical university setting to receive the additional support of specialist practitioners, such as school councillors, speech and language therapists, social workers or school psychologists. This kind of support can seem far more difficult to access now that universities have shut down and courses are being run remotely.
Tools which can help practitioners to provide continued support to those in need, as well as bring forward new cases, are vital in ensuring that no one slips through the cracks during his difficult time. However, these solutions need to be secure and easily accessible given the sensitive nature of these one-to-one sessions. At Kara Connect, for example, we have worked hard to ensure that our platform is not only end-to-end encrypted but also fully GDPR compliant, providing peace of mind to both practitioners and their clients.
The road ahead will be challenging for those in higher education, but together with their educational expertise, universities should be encouraged to utilise technology in order to help foster a learning environment that is both interactive and supportive.
Thorbjorg Vigfusdottir, educational psychologist, CEO and Founder of Kara Connect