Different boats in the same storm

The pandemic is still having a complex impact on people’s wellbeing, with students among those particularly affected. This Mental Health Awareness Week, OT  takes a look at tips for student mental health


After a year of disruption, it is little wonder that the pandemic and the subsequent lifestyle changes has had a significant impact on mental health and wellbeing.

This week has brought a heightened discussion of wellbeing to our social spheres as we mark Mental Health Awareness Week (10–16), an initiative run by the Mental Health Foundation. The 2021 campaign has focused on the benefits nature can have for promoting good mental health, something many of us have observed in the long months of lockdowns. 

This year’s campaign holds particular resonance as, a year on from the first lockdown, research by the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health in the Pandemic study has shown that the pandemic is still having a complex impact on people’s wellbeing.

Anxiety about the pandemic has fallen, but reports of loneliness has risen from 10% in March 2020 to 26% in February 2021. Meanwhile, the numbers of people who felt they were coping well with the stress of the pandemic dropped from 73% in April 2020 to 64% in February 2021.

Dr Antonis Kousoulis, director for England and Wales at the Mental Health Foundation, emphasised that everyone has had a different experience of the challenges of the pandemic, commenting: “We have all been in the same storm, but we have not all been in the same boat. The coronavirus vaccine brings hope. The warmer weather brings smiles. However, for many of us, the next few months – and even years – will remain tough, vulnerable and uncertain.”

According to the survey, several key groups were more likely to report an impact to their wellbeing, including young adults and full-time students. The survey found that, among 18–24 year olds, 48% of those surveyed in February had felt lonely as a result of the pandemic over the previous fortnight – a sharp rise from 16% in March 2020 and almost double the rate of loneliness among UK adults generally.

This has been a pattern observed by several mental health organisations throughout the pandemic, identifying a melting pot of unique concerns for students and graduates – from the pandemic itself, to academic issues and financial difficulties, as well as a vastly different approach to learning.

This is something OT has touched on throughout the year as part of our coverage of the impact of the pandemic; sharing the experiences and challenges that students and pre-registration optometrists have faced at the very outset of their journeys into the profession.

Considering the impact of the pandemic on student wellbeing, Lauren McConkey, project manager for Higher Education at the Mental Health Foundation, told us: “This is an exceptional time, and a really difficult time, to be studying or coming out of university.”

“The twists and turns of the past year have brought a great deal of uncertainty, which can really impact our mental health. As humans we like to know what is coming up so we can prepare ourselves and plan.

“It is therefore no surprise that the uncertainty the pandemic has brought, the shifting goalposts and the change in the way we live, has impacted student mental health,” she continued.

Offering some advice, McConkey recommended: “It can be good to find things we can control within things we cannot, so within the uncertainty of the pandemic, find your routine, find ways to have fun, and connect with friends and family.”

With exam season in full steam, students have shared the ways that they support their wellbeing during stressful times.

Saira Saleem, third-year student at City, University of London felt perspective was key, sharing: “In previous years my friends and I would’ve been cooped up in the library revising together which really helped us to remember that we’re all in this together and will get through this together. While that’s not been possible now, I’d suggest setting up group Zoom revision sessions with friends to help stay motivated and keep encouraging each other.”

Indy Ghuman, AOP student representative and incoming Councillor for undergraduate students, and second-year optometry student, also told OT that keeping things in perspective has been important, recommending students: “Take a step back, breathe and look at what you’ve managed to achieve so far. Keep your eye on your end goal, bite off small chunks of revision and keep chugging along.”

He advised that students should not be too hard on themselves, explaining: “University and pre-reg studies are difficult outside of a pandemic so this extra dimension is making things harder – you’re doing brilliant to get this far.”

To coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, and following the conclusion of our recent student series, OT’s web content and social media executive, Leah Boyle, has launched a new student wellbeing guide on Instagram.

Filled with illustrations and tips, encouraging insights and useful resources, do take five minutes to scroll through – whether student or stalwart optometrist.

As McConkey told us: “All in all, the overarching lesson is that we all have mental health.

“By taking small, daily measures to pause and reflect, whatever our circumstances, we can prevent ourselves from burning out and, instead, prioritise taking care of our mental health.”

And that’s something we could all probably do a little bit more of.