In this blog post, I reflect on my experiences both as a student in higher education, studying on a professional teacher training programme, and my personal experiences during and after lockdown. I identify the transitions that impacted on my mental health and suggest some implications for universities to enable them to support their students more effectively.
The conference, Transitions, wellbeing and mental health: Education after lockdown, held by the BERA Mental Health, Wellbeing and Education special interest group in January 2022, examined how mental health and wellbeing have been affected throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent return to education. Therefore, it is important to understand what transitions are and how they are navigated. Conceptualising transitions is a practice of adjustment to varying contexts and changes in interpersonal relationships (Jindal-Snape & Rienties, 2016). Transitions are conceptualised as multiple and ongoing rather than linear and successive. Additionally, transitions not only impact on individuals, but also impact on their families, their friends and others they are associated with.
‘Conceptualising transitions is a practice of adjustment to varying contexts and changes in interpersonal relationships (Jindal-Snape & Rienties, 2016).’
The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in students experiencing multiple and multi-dimensional transitions. University students had to navigate the transitions of moving to online learning, no longer being allowed to see their friends, and many were confined to spending much of their time behind a screen. Moving to online learning was by far one of the most difficult transitions I have experienced to date. As a confident, vocal student, I experienced self-doubt, lacked motivation to achieve the goals I had set and was rapidly experiencing poor wellbeing. I felt there was no way out and found myself becoming increasingly frustrated by the situation the world was facing. Despite how tough this was for students and lecturers alike, we all navigated this transition together by supporting one another. Different ways of staying connected with friends and partners were found. These included online quizzes, video calling and cooking online to make virtual date nights.
Upon returning to campus in the autumn of 2021, I was equally excited and apprehensive. My mental health, at this point, was at an all-time low and I was now navigating through another transition. I experienced a relationship breakdown with my partner, and this set the scene for another very difficult few months. I was trying to find the way through adapting to face-to-face teaching, but at the same time I was trying to be the person everyone remembered before lockdown. Although I was going through emotional transitions during this time, I tried to put on a brave face by soldiering on regardless of the hurt and upset. It is important to remind ourselves that resilience is not just about bouncing back. It operates within a socio-ecological framework and is therefore supported by access to social networks and supportive workplace and educational contexts (Maitland & Glazzard, 2022). I was fortunately supported by my department with counselling sessions, and this helped me to adapt to the changes that I was experiencing.
Universities need to try and do more to support the mental health of their students. Extensive waiting lists and an increase in student cases of mental ill-health is placing significant pressure on central wellbeing teams. However, providing designated wellbeing teams for each department or faculty or having trained departmental pastoral teams are potential ways of providing more immediate support for students. This will prevent students from feeling that they are being passed on from person to person.
A further recommendation would be for academic departments to create a student-led support group where students can come together to talk confidentially about their mental health or to listen to others. This way, students can support one another. An alternative approach is to set up confidential spaces for students to talk about their mental health where the group is led by a trained wellbeing practitioner. This could operate at departmental or faculty level so that students experience a sense of local connection.
Overall, if the Covid-19 pandemic has been able to teach us anything, it is that, as a community within education, we all must work cohesively to try and help and provide ongoing support to each other through the good times and the bad. If this can be achieved successfully, students’ transitions, wellbeing and mental health will see a marked improvement.
Jindal-Snape, D., & Rienties, B. (2016). Multi-dimensional transitions of international students to higher education. Routledge.
Maitland, J., & Glazzard, J. (2022). Finding a way through the fog: School staff experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Cambridge Journal of Education, 52(5), 555–577.