Cambridge Uni report shows increased student loneliness and mental distress in Easter term

The report also showed students ‘rarely’ felt supported by the University

CN: Discussion of mental health concerns during the pandemic

Findings from the University of Cambridge STEP study have revealed that students often experienced increased loneliness in Easter term, and frequently felt unsupported by the university with regards to mental health concerns.

The most recent report, released as part of a series tracking hundreds of students across 31 colleges, also revealed that Cambridge students experience greater mental distress than other population representative young people before the pandemic.

In a daily tracking exercise, students were asked if they felt mentally well, satisfied with their productivity and supported by their college and the University as a whole, or whether they felt lonely. They ranked their feelings from 1 to 5 with 1 = “Not at all”, 2 = “Rarely”, 3 = “Sometimes”, 4 = “Often”, and 5 = “All the time.”

This exercise highlighted the systemic issues facing students, as students said that, on average, they “rarely” felt supported by their colleges and the university across all 6 STEP reports in Lent and Easter. Loneliness was also a key issue; having previously ranked above 3 in Lent, it dipped to 2 – 2.5 for much of Easter term.

General mental health and wellbeing was consistently ranked above 3 in both Lent and Easter term, but many responses to the report say this isn’t good enough. An anonymous student told us: “It’s ridiculous that most students only sometimes feel mentally well, it should be the University’s main priority, especially in a year where we have been online learning and distanced from our support systems.”

Support from Colleges and the University never ranked above 3, with a Welfare Officer from Girton College telling us that students felt as though they were “expected” to work normally despite the impact of the pandemic derailing most attempts at normality.

A student who wished to remain anonymous re-enforced this, saying “my main problem has been how little slack my faculty gave me – I did a term from home, most of my teaching has been online which everyone I know agrees isn’t as good as in person, and yet despite this I’m still expected to reach the standards I would in a normal year. Adding on social isolation and all the restrictions from the pandemic I just feel like it’s impossible to achieve what’s asked of me.”

The report reflects these feelings, as it also revealed that Cambridge students suffer higher levels of “mental distress” compared to other population representative young people. In every examination of students’ distress, the results deviated from the expected norm of pre-pandemic comparisons.

An anonymous third year student said: “It’s expected, but still sad, and while there’s only so much the University could do this year, I think it’s wrong to pretend these issues didn’t exist before Covid.”

Speaking to a JCR Welfare Officer, factors such as lockdown extensions, isolation and exams have “definitely exacerbated loneliness” in Easter term.

They further noted that an attempt to resolve such issues requires “structural and systemic changes to welfare provision” from the University. As part of this, they called for investment in the UCS and DRC, and a wider assessment of the “intense academic culture” and its impact on mental health.

Outside of structural issues, the Welfare Officer advised those struggling to focus on forming support networks; whether through flatmates, subject peers or students in societies, having social connections is “key” in maintaining good mental health and reducing the isolation that students have felt at an increased level this term.

But alongside this, the welfare team reiterate the importance of knowing that “the burden should not be on students to help themselves and help others” so supporting calls for “key structural changes” within the University is also essential to improving the experience of students.

Feature image credit: Ella Fogg