Loneliness and superficial friendships – report reveals social impact of pandemic on students


Student walking down library aisle
Image credit: Redd (Unsplash)

As social restrictions begin to ease across the country, higher education students are feeling the consequences of little to no social interaction, with 1 in 5 year two and three students saying they don't have a 'real friend' at their university


It's safe to say that university students have had a unique experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, lockdown restrictions have kept them separated from their families and loved ones, and isolated in their student dorms while the typical university experience has yet to come to fruition.


In the UK, the impact of these social restrictions on students' mental health has been a cause for concern. A survey carried out in December last year by the Office for National Statistics showed that 57% of students had experienced a worsening in their mental wellbeing since the beginning of the Autumn term. One in five (22%) said theirs was much worse.


Similar findings have been shown elsewhere in the world too. A survey from student advocacy firm Chegg.org, which included over 16,000 undergraduate students from 21 countries, found that mental health had worsened in 56% of respondents. Brazil (76%), the USA (75%), and Canada (73%) reported the worst figures.


Now, as restrictions finally begin to ease in parts of the UK, new evidence sheds light on the social life many students have experienced during the pandemic.


In a survey carried out by Accenture and student market research company Cibyl, several key findings point toward a life of social isolation and poor mental wellbeing.


Of the 12,000 year two and three students from across the United Kingdom who took part in the study, 1 in 5 said they didn't have a 'real friend' at university, indicating a degree of superficiality to friendships that some students had developed. Loneliness was also a common factor affecting students, with 55% saying they felt lonely every day or every week. A further 45% said that had been avoiding socialising in person or online with others.

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One of the most worrying findings from the report though comes in the form of the number of students with thoughts of taking their own life. According to the report, 42% of students had experienced suicidal thoughts at some time, 24% of whom said these thoughts had originated during their time at university. Roughly 1 in 6 (16%) said they had considering self-harming in the 12 months prior to the survey taking place.


Suicidal thoughts were even more common among those from lower socio-economic backgrounds at 47%.


Encouraging conversation


These high numbers seem to contradict the support provided to students by universities. According to the report, most universities offered mental health support either directly or indirectly, and 60% students were aware of the services available.


But the same proportion of students stated that they were not accessing any support provided. For those that did speak to someone about their mental health, just 1 in 5 (21%) had spoken to someone from university medical services, and only 11% had talked to a member of support staff.

Graph of student choice of contact for mental health concerns
Who students spoke to about their mental health. Source: 'University: The best time of our lives?' report, Cibyl.

When asked why this was the case, 4 in 10 (42%) said they did not know how to express their feelings – a statistic particularly prominent among overseas African Caribbean students (34%).


Reimagining mental health support


In 2019, the University Mental Health Charter was launched to provide an impartial framework that universities needed to abide by to provide adequate mental health support for students. But despite its introduction and any subsequent improvement in support, the challenge will always be getting students to access it.


"There’s no doubt that university leaders throughout the UK want to support student mental health and have taken steps to do so," comments Barbara Harvey, executive sponsor for Mental Health and Wellness at Accenture, in the report's foreword. "However, our research revealed that the half of our students didn't feel their mental health was supported at university and many are reluctant, or unable, to access the care they need."


To encourage engagement with services, the report concludes with 5 key recommendations:

  • Proactively understand each student's mental health profile in order to provide adequate support

  • Look toward technology-led solutions to make accessing care as easy as possible

  • Improve education for both students and staff about mental health

  • Help students adapt to university life and forge friendships

  • Focus on prevention and not cure


"We must work smarter to help these young people — our future parents, workers and leaders — achieve and sustain better mental health," adds Harvey.


For a link to the full report, click here.


Marco Ricci

Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health