Student mental health

Looking after the mental health and wellbeing of students during the coronavirus pandemic is crucial in helping students succeed and benefit from their higher education.

These case studies describe some of the ideas and practices that universities and colleges have put in place to respond quickly to the need to deliver mental health support to students during this time.

These interventions have been developed at pace and have not yet been evaluated for effectiveness. Their inclusion is not intended to stipulate particular approaches or endorse the actions of specific institutions. They are offered in the spirit of sharing practice that others may find useful and applicable to their own contexts.

Wellbeing and resilience

The health and wellbeing of the college students continues to be a priority amid the crisis.

Students are engaging in online resources and tutorials and this is being monitored by the college’s pathway leaders, tutorial team leaders, study skills advisers and higher education disabilities adviser.

Student voice activities have continued, with virtual student panels and course committee meetings, instead of scheduled face-to-face ones. This has been particularly challenging where the students may be key workers, but the college has continued to adjust and be flexible to provide the required support to the students. 

Dudley College of Technology is keeping its pastoral programme running throughout lockdown to make sure students feel supported and encouraged and to reduce isolation. 

The college has recently launched a schedule of activities for all students to support wellbeing and particularly to maintain the social environment of college. From quizzes, Tai Chi Qigong, ‘tea and chat’ hangouts and games with the students’ union, to Q&A sessions with animal experts, the college is focusing on keeping students engaged with college and each other. The students’ union has launched a weekly video for parents of younger children, with ideas of crafts and activities to carry out easily at home. 

Goldsmiths, University of London has created a series of videos for students, focusing on emotional wellbeing. These were developed just prior to lockdown by the Goldsmiths Student Counselling Service by the counselling service manager and a CBT therapist.

Watch the videos:

Take Time Out is King’s College London Students’ Union’s annual health and wellbeing event to promote physical, mental and social wellbeing for students during exam time, which is funded by and run in collaboration with the college.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the project team quickly changed Take Time Out to become a virtual space called ‘Take Time In’ to support positive wellbeing for the community. The online wellbeing hub, which was co-created with student peer supporters, was based on the NHS’s Five steps to mental wellbeing and provided resources, ideas, activities, service signposting and virtual events (led by both students and staff) for students to invest in their wellbeing together.

With more than 5,600 page views in a month during the online event, the team is now working to develop this space to become a sustainable part of the student union’s health promotion efforts.

Key statistics from the programme include:

  • 58 virtual events during the six-week project in April and May
  • more than 15 college and students’ union departments involved
  • 5,654 page views in one month
  • 15 newsletters reaching more than 30,000 students
  • 18,000 users reached on Facebook
  • engagement from four continents and more than seven countries
  • 87.5 per cent of students surveyed said that the event improved their wellbeing
  • 92 per cent said they would want to participate in another Take Time In initiative.

A whole-university approach was taken in response to the coronavirus pandemic, tagged under the #MarjonTogether branding on social media. The university was one of the first to offer accommodation to NHS staff working at the local hospital, and confirmed to students they would not be charged for their university accommodation if they chose to move out.

The university also recognised that an approach to supporting students would need to be flexible and diverse, as everyone would be motivated and feel supported in different ways.  

Initiatives are running across the university, from senior management – who regularly post videos to students and staff outlining decisions and how remote studying would work, and encourage staff from every quarter to use creative and value-led approaches – to chaplaincy, student support and students’ union teams – who continue to provide care and attention to those needing help, especially for their wellbeing.

A very small number of students have remained on campus throughout, and continue to be supported and contacted regularly by resident student life advisers, with out-of-hours support from the resident team.

Where possible and desired, some students have been employed in various activities, such as maintaining an enquiry system for NHS staff who moved into campus in April. Keeping occupied and providing a much-needed service, these students benefitted in terms of both wellbeing and finance, while ensuring they had close contact with others at a time when they could feel isolated on campus.

All students were contacted by their programme leader or personal development tutor at the beginning of April to ensure they had access to whatever they required to keep studying. Academic staff have continued to keep abreast of student engagement, contacting students who do not attend online lectures, seminars or hand work in to ensure that they are offered further support.

The students’ union has maintained very close contact with students via various mediums, encouraging a number of activities to keep healthy both physically and mentally. Every week the students’ union president and team post on university social media, including a number of charity challenges encouraging community engagement. The incoming deputy president has launched a peer mentoring scheme for students to help support mental wellbeing. The students’ union has been linking closely with the student support and chaplaincy teams to help support students.

The chaplaincy team has run one-to-one telephone wellbeing appointments for any students raising concerns about student support, and then spoken with staff who could help the student to access longer-term support.

The counselling team has maintained contact with students throughout lockdown, through wellbeing checks to ensure no one is without support who has self-referred for counselling before or during lockdown.

Like many other universities, Marjon University is now planning a number of activities and communications designed to improve wellbeing for students returning or beginning university in September. They hope to launch their own health and wellbeing pages particularly for new students in September outlining how a healthy balance can be maintained during the busy social period of freshers and beyond.

Riverside College has produced an anxiety and stress booklet for all students and this is available on the college's health and wellbeing webpage.

The college has also tried to help learners feel positive about each day. The college asks students to think about what they are thankful for, and what small or big thing they have done to be supportive during the coronavirus crisis. The results are very positive and really demonstrate the breadth and resilience of learners.

To ensure that all students continue to feel supported and are able to access timely interventions, the University of Plymouth has developed and implemented several groups, run by student services via Zoom. These include:

  • Calm and Zoom: Students can learn and practice effective techniques that support them to soothe and regulate distressing symptoms, such as flashbacks, panic attacks, sleep problems and difficulty focusing. It is a safe, comfortable and relaxing space to explore techniques.
  • Global buddies: A group for international students to connect and learn strategies to help wellbeing.
  • Mood boost: Students can learn new skills to help feel better, happier, more relaxed, more confident and less sad, irritated or worried.
  • Enhancing motivation: Peer-to-peer engagement where students can learn the ways other students are currently managing to stay motivated and how these could be used to improve their own mental wellbeing.
  • Other groups include a women’s wellbeing group, men’s wellbeing group, LGBT+ in isolation and mindfulness training.

The mental health team has also worked with faculty staff to implement university-wide faculty-led social groups for international students.

Because of the increase in isolation during the coronavirus pandemic, the groups have not only enabled students to learn new strategies to improve their wellbeing, they have also enabled a social space where they can meet other students and share their own coping mechanisms.

Students have engaged well with the groups. Data collected on 21 May 2020 showed that 180 students have signed up for groups since lockdown started on 23 March 2020. The more structured groups have seen a higher uptake of students (they are fully booked each week), whereas the other groups have built momentum at a slower pace.

The development has been led by the mental health team. The team has a wide breadth of experience, and includes a probation officer, a social worker, mental health nurses and an occupational therapist.

The team developed a bespoke feedback form for the groups and will continuously monitor feedback to understand the changing needs of students and to ensure the groups are relevant for the student population and the issues they face during the pandemic.

At the start of each group, students are informed that if required they can enter a ‘break-out room’ with a member of staff if they are struggling, or if any risk issues are identified. They can also access duty appointments with the mental health team. Verbal feedback from groups has been very positive.

The groups have been advertised via staff and student bulletins, the university website, social media and the students' union.

As part of their collaborative efforts, the mental health team manager engaged with other members of the University Mental Health Advisers Network to share ideas about ways to access and reach students in the current situation.

The University of Stirling has launched a programme of social, health and wellbeing, learning and cultural activities and resources called ‘Be Connected’, to help students during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. It has been developed around the ‘Five ways to wellbeing’ and includes a wide range of seminars, group activities and a sports programme. It is championed by staff and student representatives from across the university. The university has also moved all its support services online and are using various media including Teams, Zoom, Big Blue Button, Panopto and Facebook Live.

Stirling has also launched a bank of FAQs for students and staff and has further enhanced digital support through:

  • the launch of a new Employee Assistance Programme
  • bereavement guidance
  • guidance on support for anyone who has experience sexual violence or domestic abuse
  • the launch of Big White Wall for all staff and students.

At a time of personal stress and dislocation, the university has been proactively working to help students manage their health and wellbeing, financial hardship, and maintain social connections with one another while ensuring support services remain available to students who need them.

Remote support and counselling

The Student Check-In Service is proactive in contacting students remaining in Cardiff and staying in touch with students during this period of social distancing, to prevent feelings of loneliness and detachment from the university. The service is part of the wider response strategy, which is a collaborative effort involving teams from across the university and the students’ union.

Students use online forms to explain their circumstances, any underlying health conditions, any symptoms of coronavirus, and where they are. Those remaining in Cardiff, an estimated 7,500 to 8,000, were initially prioritised.

Volunteer staff call students using Skype, phones and Microsoft Teams to engage students from home. They have been supplied with online training and scripts, which were developed in collaboration with the counselling and crisis intervention teams to help volunteers recognise and manage students who may be displaying unusual behaviour.

With its own reporting framework, management information, risk assessment, data protection processes, reports and monitoring, it allows the university to monitor and respond to trends in student issues and needs.

In developing the service, the change management team highlighted the importance of bringing together a diverse range of skillsets within the team and having an agile approach to the process, while maintaining strong control around governance, risk and consent.

The team also strongly value the need for allowing appropriate time and space for those who are going to be involved in delivering support to familiarise themselves with new systems and processes, as well as being mindful of the impact on any staff or volunteers.

Service response to supporting the mental health of students and staff

King’s College London’s Counselling and Mental Health Service (C&MHS) moved online on 23 March due to the coronavirus lockdown. They offer remote individual and group counselling and mental health support to all students, including undergraduate, postgraduate and UK and non-UK based.

Service protocols and policies have been adapted, including updated registration forms, to reflect the change from face-to-face to online provision.

In May the service offered over 1,000 counselling and mental health support sessions and appointments and there was a substantial reduction in DNA (did not attend) rates.

Published crisis support information and risk procedures have been updated on the website and messaging is regularly updated regarding service provision.

New online resources have also been developed, including:

Communication with students and staff about adapted provision has been through newsletters and the university's mental health wellbeing pages.

Staff have been offered a support package that includes regular check-ins, mental health online training, a half-day mental health first aid awareness course and e-learning from the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust.

Personal tutors have been provided with training modules on how to support students with low mood and anxiety, and specialist support has been offered to the 1,800+ students still in residence.

Healthcare staff and students have been sent specific communications with signposting to online resources and additional support such as appointments offered within five working days.

New group initiatives have been developed to support black, Asian and minority ethnic students, Chinese and international students affected by coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement.

A survey evaluating the student experience has been launched, which explores how the coronavirus pandemic has affected students' mental health and their experience of online mental health support.

The university is continuing collaboration with sabbatical officers and the students’ union to develop support.

Clinical outcome measures for international students during lockdown

  • 44 per cent of King’s students (out of a total of 31,300) are international students
  • 41 per cent of students who applied to the Counselling and Mental Health Service are international students.

Many overseas students have continued to apply to the service after returning to their home country as a result of the pandemic.

The service asks all registering students to complete the CORE Outcome Measure (CORE-OM) form with 34 questions to measure the student's wellbeing and risk and to triage. The service also uses CIAO (Clinical Impact on Academic Outcome) to measure the impact of counselling on students’ academic experience. However, CORE-NET often cannot be accessed from overseas, so the service has adapted the forms to make them accessible via PDF format.

More recently, King’s IT department was tasked with developing an app so that students could complete all the measures easily from their phones. The app was named KOSMOS (King’s Outcome Scoring Measures for Overseas Students) and was launched in June 2020.

Supporting students at risk

The university has a ‘student of concern’ process for faculties and residence teams to share concerns and report students at risk. This is managed by the head of mental health support and triaged by mental health advisers, or student welfare co-ordinators if it is not related to mental health. The procedure has been adapted for students currently outside the UK.

A weekly student of concern management meeting takes place with a range of internal stakeholders and includes joint working with the welfare team.

The decision to migrate London Metropolitan University’s counselling support and training online was made early in March in consultation with the senior counsellors in the team and the head of Student Services. All operational decisions were approved by the director of student journey, and fed into the university’s wider strategy on providing mental health support to students.

Support is offered remotely (via Zoom or over the phone) to all students, irrespective of where they might be based at the time. The policy and confidentiality statement was adjusted to cover students based abroad, particularly in non-EU countries.

The Counselling Service has seen a 28 per cent drop in demand during lockdown in comparison to the same period last year - this accounts for a 7 per cent drop overall between 2018-19 and 2019-20.

A multitude of responses have been observed to offering support remotely; from students adjusting quickly to deciding to wait until face-to-face meetings are reinstated. The university has adopted a flexible approach to meeting students’ needs within resourcing capabilities, for example offering shorter sessions, allowing students to attend meetings outdoors or in unusual spaces, having cameras off or offering phone counselling instead.

Interactions have been monitored and reported weekly (using Google Forms), and feed into the directorate statistics. Student and staff feedback has also been collected at the end of counselling work and workshops, suggesting that the counselling service can operate successfully over various remote platforms without undermining practice quality, efficacy and ethos. This allows the team to consider how to introduce flexibility in work practices in the future, after students and staff return to campus.

A partnership between the University of Birmingham, Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, Forward Thinking Birmingham and the Children’s Society was one of 10 successful projects to receive funding from the Office for Students to develop a ‘step change’ in mental health support for students.

Since October 2019, the partnership has developed an innovative drop-in mental health and emotional wellbeing hub in the university’s central library, providing interventions to University of Birmingham students on a no-waiting basis.

The result is the ‘UoB Pause’ hub, which works in partnership with Forward Thinking Birmingham and the Children’s Society’s community support services, to provide interventions to students by phone seven days per week, significantly extending the previous service offer of up to 30 hours per week onsite.

The university has provided weekly updates to all students during the pandemic, and UoB Pause has been showcased on a number occasions. All university wellbeing teams can communicate to students a clear understanding of the service offer, and support them to access it. The UoB Pause team has also regularly provided additional materials such as ‘self-help challenges’ and spoken word autonomous sensory meridian response podcasts to help the wider student community manage stress and anxiety during lockdown.

To ensure the new provision is effective, the project’s evaluation team, led by Forward Thinking Birmingham’s public health lead, undertook a rapid international service review, to understand whether any prior learning from other services could be reflected in the new delivery model. Engagement and presentation data is reviewed regularly to identify any unintended gaps in support. The evaluation and management groups have been meeting every two weeks during the coronavirus transition phase.

It has been a challenging and positive period of learning for the partnership, and the willingness of the NHS and third sector partners to include the university-led project at the heart of wider community continuity planning has been integral to the success of the university’s response to the pandemic.

To date, the service has supported students in Birmingham, across the UK and internationally, who have accessed the service with a range of issues including anxiety, social isolation, loss, closure and relationship difficulties. The project team are now developing a rapid recovery plan, looking ahead to the next academic year.

The university’s Advice and Guidance Team has been widely promoted to students. They are offering video and phone appointments and act as a first point of contact for students with coronavirus symptoms, regularly checking in with them and offering ongoing support. They have also developed webpages with specific wellbeing and mental health resources in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The university’s counselling service and Mental Health Advisers are also offering appointments via video and telephone.

The Mental Health Advisers continue to work closely with local mental health services to offer enhanced and joined-up support to students with pre-existing mental health issues.

The counselling service is working with all students but is fast-tracking priority students, such as students working in the NHS and recently bereaved students.

The university is offering a range of online resources. This includes the digital platforms Big White Wall and Silvercloud, a service offering out-of-hours online counselling called The Mind Map, and Fika, which is a mental fitness digital platform.

The university has established a Psychological Resource Network, which is organising the provision of psychological support and resources for a range of different groups. Initially set up to support medical, nursing and allied health students, it has been expanded to include all university staff and students as well as the public. Resources are being collated on the university’s Project ARES website.

The university has developed several communication channels to help students feel connected, stay updated on news and know what support is being offered. This includes a fortnightly newsletter for students still residing in Liverpool accommodation, a social media campaign on wellbeing, information on virtual events and sharing of advice from other students. The university also has a dedicated FAQ page to keep students up to date on developments related to coronavirus and how to access support.

The process of adapting provision of mental health support at the University of Northampton evolved throughout the transition to remote working, with changes implemented in stages.

During a two-week adjustment period, responsiveness and flexibility were key in ensuring that students continued to feel supported.

Self-help resources on the website have been updated to include those specific to managing the anxiety and difficult emotions this crisis has brought up for many students.

There are six mental health advisers and the team has been trialling video mental health support (via Collaborate) as well as instant chat messaging, so that any students with issues concerning confidentiality in their environment still have access to support.

The counselling service is offering broadly the same service as before lockdown, apart from face-to-face appointments, with all appointments now taking place by phone. The team is comprised of one full-time counsellor, two part-time and one sessional (who works five days a week during term-time).

In conjunction with the mental health service, a daily drop-in service was previously provided during term time. The team have set up a service that mirrored this as much as possible, enabling students to book a drop-in slot by ordering a (free) ticket via Eventbrite.

The counselling service is term-time only, and an appropriate platform for video calls and alternative to phone counselling will be developed for the start of the new academic year. The university is also investigating ways of providing online group support or workshops as another source of support in the future.

Course leaders for health related courses were contacted by the counselling service in order to promote services as many of their students will be on placement in hospitals.

In March 2020 the counselling service at the University of Nottingham transferred to online means of supporting students. This included:

  • telephone or video call counselling support
  • advice and consultation for staff with student supporting roles
  • online workshops
  • signposting to relevant resources and agencies
  • online bereavement support groups.

The team uses Microsoft Teams and Titanium CRM to ensure confidentiality, and unknown caller ID for mobile phone contact.

This provision is defined as ‘counselling support’ rather than ‘counselling’ as it is a new service, and also because the team are working with students who may live abroad under different legal systems.

The service is open to all registered students at the university. The team has followed up where necessary to ensure that students who are not comfortable engaging in online support have instead been offered email support or been signposted to other services.

Where the student is not in the UK, brief counselling support is offered, encouraging them where necessary to access local support.

The team is aware that students with hearing difficulties may struggle to access this medium, and can offer some support and advice (though not counselling) via email.

The Head of the Counselling Service and the Service Operations Manager led the development and transition of the counselling service to online provision, working with the Heads of Student Welfare and Campus Life and other senior managers at the university.

Preparedness was a significant issue across the university and the sector generally, including the counselling profession and professional bodies. There was a lack of clarity about eligibility to practice online counselling, and about offering support to students living outside the UK. Staff lacked important resources and equipment (such as workstations and furniture, IT equipment and connectivity), and the individual needs of staff in their particular home-working circumstances could not always be taken into consideration. Equality, diversity and inclusion issues need to be prioritised in the future planning for online support. 

The service's activity is monitored through clinical support sessions with counsellors and through discussion with other internal stakeholders such as the Student Wellbeing Officer and managers and Mental Health Advisers. The counselling service collects data each week monitoring student attendance and demand, and asks for qualitative feedback following contact, either one-to-one or through groups and workshops. Students are invited to feed back on all aspects of the service they engage with.

The development of the online service has been a short-term response to the current situation, so although those developing the adapted service have not been able to collaborate closely with the students’ union on development, they communicate with its officers and respond flexibly where they can to requests from students. The counselling service also liaises closely with other university support services to identify and respond to need as it arises.

New modes of counselling

The university counselling service moved quickly to offer their full range of individual and group interventions online, primarily via video call. However, there was concern that some students were not accessing counselling because a video call was not a workable option for them - because they did not have access to reliable WiFi, or because they did not have a sufficiently private place to take the call. For this reason, all student-facing communications were adapted to emphasise the commitment to working as flexibly as possible, so that any student could access counselling regardless of circumstances.

When responding to students requesting appointments, the team emphasise that video call is the recommended option for students who have reliable WiFi and a private place to take a call, as it most closely replicates an in-person session. However, alternatives are offered: text chat (via Microsoft Teams), audio call (via Microsoft Teams) or phone. During the first contact with the student, counsellor and student consider together whether to continue working in the same way, or whether an alternative might work better.

A short article was produced with advice for students on how best to make use of an online counselling session, to get the maximum benefit.

‘Coronavirus welfare advice’ articles and podcasts

The counselling service team has produced a series of 11 short articles (around 700 words) and three podcasts (15 minutes) to support students during the pandemic.

To achieve the broadest possible impact, these ‘Coronavirus welfare advice’ articles and podcasts were released via the Oxford University student news feed. They have also been gathered on a Coronavirus welfare advice hub, which is accessible via the student welfare and support services and counselling service webpages. Further articles are planned in the remaining weeks of academic year.

Articles include:

Podcasts include:

To produce these articles and podcasts, professional counselling staff were invited to make contributions based on their own sense of what would be most useful to students at this time. A set of editorial guidelines was produced to ensure some consistency of length, tone and content. One member of staff took on a coordinating role, to ensure that staff were not duplicating efforts on the same topics.

The University of Roehampton launched a campaign to speak with every single taught student on the phone, via instant message or with follow-up appointments throughout the delivery of remote learning, teaching and assessment.

Following the lockdown, student feedback suggested that students were feeling lonely, isolated and demotivated, and the university’s aim was to ensure that they felt supported and part of a community.

The Proactive Student Support project was led by three departments in the institution: Student Engagement, Student Support and Learning and Teaching. Project development workshops were held with all heads of academic departments and included consultation with the students’ union and student senate. In preparation for the launch, training sessions were offered to all academic staff and guidance packs were sent out.

Over 5,000 students received a phone call from their academic guidance tutor over an eight-day period during the first three weeks of remote delivery, with all other taught students contacted on other platforms.

The first call focused on assessing how each student was coping with the current situation, and ensuring that no barriers existed to prevent them engaging in their learning and teaching and that they had a clear understanding of their upcoming assessments.

A second round of calls focused on their broader learning outcomes, including assessment, skills, careers and personal development, with a review of their engagement data to date.

The final round of calls, taking place in June, will guide students on module selection for next year linked to interest and career aspirations, and will signpost students to employability events running throughout the summer term.

The data gathered across these interventions is considered alongside the student engagement dashboard that measures students’ engagement with online resources, the number of credits obtained to date, and whether a student has mitigating circumstances or reasonable adjustments in place.

This campaign has played an important role in gathering feedback from students, which has shaped decision making and allowed the university to support individual students with specific needs. Staff have been able to identify students at risk of non-continuation as a result of the current situation or other exceptional personal circumstances, and have put targeted support in place for those students to support their progression.

Individual students who reported wellbeing or mental health difficulties received follow-up by trained professionals, and many students reporting IT issues that prevented them working have had laptops loaned and delivered, making it possible for them to continue with their studies.

Evaluation of the whole approach is still to be completed and the insights will be used to inform communications to resitting students and to signpost students to summer term activities. The outcome of the initiative will be to inform and enhance a university-wide proactive support approach for September.

Collaborative efforts across all departments played a significant role in the success of this campaign, with the university holding multiple training sessions and producing in-depth guidance packs to ensure that all staff delivered consistent outcomes.

At the outset of lockdown, the University of Warwick transferred all wellbeing support services online and the new Warwick Wellbeing Strategy provided a platform to be able to adapt wellbeing support services quickly.

A comprehensive library of online wellbeing support was developed in line with the new Universities UK #Stepchange framework, including a range of webinars for students and staff on topics such as anticipatory grief and resilience for managers, plus weekly sessions on mindful relaxation and mindfulness through movement

Access to services, which usually includes a daily drop-in, has been adapted and maintained, and brief consultations with wellbeing advisers are taking place by phone instead. The range of masterclasses for students has included a coronavirus element and is now delivered remotely. All wellbeing appointments are now delivered via video. The Counselling and Psychology Interventions Team has also moved its work to online, including group therapy. 

Students have been offered a new service called email therapy where they can write in at a time that suits them and receive a reply during the allocated therapy appointment hour. This was developed with a recognition that some students may not have appropriate privacy in their lockdown living arrangement to have video therapy sessions, and this offers a more private, discreet alternative.

The university already runs an established email counselling service as part of a broad range of therapeutic interventions for students who are abroad on placements, or who choose to use the medium of writing rather than talking. Some students prefer this, as it allows them to explore issues that they might find too shameful or distressing to talk about face-to-face, and so that they have a record of the exchanges to consider. Another benefit of this service is that it is not bound by time zones and it doesn't require consistent broadband connectivity.

Some of the infrastructure of the processes has been adapted to ensure it is accessible to all students who choose to use this method of engagement.

A sub group of the core therapy team have additional training and qualifications in offering online counselling. This has been extended so that it can be offered by the whole team, ensuring ethical and good practice is maintained.

Feedback from students through the 12 years that the University of Warwick has offered email counselling has helped shape and develop the email therapy offering and the university continues to seek feedback from students who access this adapted service.

The email service has been developed in conjunction with the wider wellbeing support services, who have been briefed on how to refer students.

International student support

SOAS University of London has been working with the University of Nottingham as part of a project to support the mental health of international students funded through the OfS’s Challenge Competition.

Led by the students’ union’s Co-President Activities and Events, SOAS students’ union has established a ‘virtual SU’ with a rolling programme of events aiming to break down feelings of isolation and boredom during the lockdown. These have included online movie nights, virtual tours of museums, cooking showcases, and sports activities.

The students’ union sought to create a place where societies and other groups in SOAS can hold events, run campaigns, provide each other with support and resources and hold discussions about life in quarantine. With an emphasis on showing more positivity during these hard times, this group intends to help motivate students, keep them active and keep them well. 

SOAS has also set up a specific group for international students, hosted by its multifaith advisor and the Advice and Wellbeing team, called ‘Let’s Chat’. The group has a focus on providing a space for international students to get together and have some broader pastoral support, and a chance to meet and keep in contact with other international students. 

In addition SOAS has offered webinars to students, including topics such as understanding and preventing hate crime, mindfulness and anxiety. 

University of Leeds has been working with the University of Nottingham as part of a project to support the mental health of international students funded through the OfS’s Challenge Competition.

The university has created a dedicated coronavirus platform as a single location for information, with specific webpages for international students who have returned home as well as those who have remained in Leeds. 

Leeds University Union Advice Centre has migrated online offering video appointments, telephone consultations or advice via email. 

Leeds University Union has also created an online Facebook group for students to continue to communicate and share, and offers a podcast which has posted on isolation.

As part of an Office for Students Challenge Competition funded project, The University of Nottingham is working with SOAS University of London and the University of Leeds to support the mental health of international students.

The University of Nottingham has recruited two dedicated posts to support international student mental health. These have played a leading role in proactively responding to the impact coronavirus has had on international students at the university.

For example, mindful of the time difference for international students who have returned home, the university has been able to reserve morning online appointments with a dedicated mental health adviser for international students.

They have also worked closely with the university and students’ union welfare teams to ensure that international students’ needs are addressed during the creation of the institution’s mental health coronavirus webpages

The university has been able to draw on the experiences of its Malaysia and Ningbo campuses to inform its responses for international students. For example, the UK and Ningbo welfare services have worked closely to ensure an online video call offer is possible in mainland China. 

International chaplaincy 

The University of Nottingham’s chaplains have offered support to all students, of all faiths or none. They help people to practice their faith and engage with faith communities, but they also offer general pastoral support to anyone who needs someone to listen or to talk things through with either by phone or online.

Specifically for international students, the chaplaincy have set up a weekly rolling programme of online activities

Home from home online support group 

The students’ union established an online space, led by its International Student Network and International Student Officer, for international students who remain isolated on campus.

The online support group offers a space to bring these students together and emphasise that they are not alone. This space has become vibrant, sharing lockdown recipes, pen pal schemes, charity and volunteering opportunities.

Whole university approach

The University of Edinburgh has developed its response to coronavirus using a whole-university approach, in line with the Stepchange framework.

Within this strategic approach, it has ensured that there is a strong focus on student and staff wellbeing.

With a range of digital platforms already in place (Big White Wall, Silvercloud, Feeling Good app), the university has been able to promote these to staff and students, as well as online resources from the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust. The university has highlighted the importance of allowing all students the space to talk, as well as counselling where appropriate.

Support services have continued to work closely with NHS colleagues and community mental health teams to develop effective systems to reach out to students who are considered to be ‘at-risk’.

To support students who remain on campus or have recently left for home the Residence Life Mental Health Coordinator and Residential Life Director have developed a number of remote non-clinical interventions based on behavioural intervention strategies including:

The staff COVID-19 Wellbeing and Support Forum holds fortnightly sessions, allowing over 60 members to work through issues that have come up and share good practice across the university.

The existing student mental health training programme for non-clinical staff has been moved online, with twice as many sessions being delivered and plans for further scaling-up. Good escalation policies have been fundamental in supporting non-clinical staff concerned about how they should act and respond to students who aren’t engaging but weren’t previously considered high risk.

The university is now looking to reshape its professional development framework into a best practice hub to make sure that effective resources are visible and easily accessible to all staff.

Looking to the future, the university is now implementing a new project focused on rethinking student administration and support within a hybrid model of learning and teaching both online and on campus.

The University of Sussex took a staged approach following the government lockdown, focusing on addressing immediate needs of the most vulnerable while developing provision for the broader student population.

The service offer was designed as far as practicable to give the greatest support to those most at risk, and was initially prioritised as follows:

  • those on or near campus with no choice to go anywhere else 
  • those on or near campus with choice to be elsewhere, but who have remained
  • those who have gone elsewhere and are safe. 

Support for vulnerable students

Staff check in daily with students who are self-isolating or experiencing coronavirus symptoms and are staying on campus. Weekly virtual drop-ins are available through Campus and Residential Services to ensure students on campus feel connected and can raise worries and concerns about themselves or others.

In addition, students who are deemed to be at high risk of harm to themselves or others are contacted regularly. Students have been contacted to ascertain their whereabouts, and regular check-ins will continue during this period.

More mentoring and tutoring support has been made available for students whose mental health conditions may be exacerbated by the current situation and who would benefit from a review of their needs and the support of a mentor or tutor. This allows the university to be proactive in spotting risk and intervening positively with the support that the student needs.

Wellbeing ‘What’s On’

‘Caring for You’ has been created on the university’s student webpages as a ‘go to’ place for students on wellbeing matters. It includes videos and curated articles to support psychological, physical and spiritual wellbeing. A page has been developed with links to activities and advice for self-help during the coronavirus lockdown and self-isolation.

A timetable of activity provides a snapshot of the Wellbeing ‘What’s On’ offer. The wellbeing offer runs alongside online teaching and learning activities, and care has been taken to ensure students are not overwhelmed by a plethora of activities and opportunities.

Website usage statistics for the mental health pages show continued uptake by students, with noticeable peaks on Mondays and Fridays.

The university is collaborating with its students’ union to support students still resident on campus, including through a buddy scheme, a virtual language café for international students, and a forum to exchange recipe ideas.

Partnership with the students’ union

The university has collaborated with its students’ union to support students still resident on campus, including through a buddy scheme and a virtual language café for international students. The students’ union has also developed community engagement and activities, such as a Facebook group to enable students to connect and meet new people, and social activities including study buddies, dinner buddies and a forum to exchange recipe ideas.

Daily videoconferences are taking place between the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Education and Students), the Director for the Student Experience and the students’ union sabbatical officer team to ensure cohesive and consistent two-way communication.

All student support provision at the university, including the wellbeing service, disability service and student support advisers, now offers support online, on the phone or via email. An online mental wellbeing community, Kooth Student, continues to provide online counselling for students who would like to talk, and a 24/7 crisis text line is also still available for students.

The university also has a dedicated phone line through which students, parents and carers, or members of the public can raise serious concerns about student vulnerability.   

Promotion and prevention

The university has developed a series of online group wellbeing activities for students.

The library has developed a collection of ebooks about wellbeing, as well as providing study skills sessions and resources online.

The Centre for Music offers an online choir as well as online tuition and is also running a talent contest through its social media channels.

The Centre for Sport has been offering open and free to all yoga and tai chi sessions, and has launched the Virtual Bristol 10k. 

The social prescribing programme has transitioned to an online format, allowing students to engage in art, exercise and walking activities. Other activities to encourage social connectivity are gardening lessons, creative writing and virtual picnics.  

The accommodation team continue to proactively support students who are living on campus with regular check-ins as well as working with the residential support programme, HallsLife, to provide opportunities for students to come together online to take part in activities such as quizzes and cooking lessons.


Working with external providers, including Off the Record, Shout and the NHS, the university has been able to deliver online group activities, as well as promoting positive coping strategies and mental health support during this time. Off the Record offers online sessions including a ‘Pet in’ and an anxiety lab. 

The Future Quest team is releasing weekly activities with a particular focus on transition support and wellbeing, which will be communicated via newsletters to school staff, parents, carers and students.

The university’s academic registrar has established a working group of all key stakeholders in student mental health and wellbeing, including the students' unions, which meets twice weekly to review actions and progress and to ensure effective communications and joined-up working.

Online resources

New online resources were produced, including coronavirus-specific wellbeing pages, and a review of existing pages was undertaken to reflect new and developing advice and resources. This includes blogs by students, video wellbeing workshops created by college tutors and video mindfulness resources, created by Open Door Team practitioners.

The university also signed up to Big White Wall as an extra anonymous, 24/7 resource for students. Big White Wall also provides self-directed courses, self-assessment exercises, articles and one-to-one support from qualified accredited mental health practitioners. 

To ensure a coherent message, a student wellbeing communications plan has been produced for the rest of the summer term, focusing common challenges during the pandemic.

Advisory services

All student advisory services quickly moved to ensure continuity of service via email and phone. The university also set up a dedicated helpline to provide a central point for all queries.

The Student Hub is also working closely in collaboration with the students’ union advisory services where appropriate, to provide the most effective services with current resources.

Work continues to ensure that this is effectively communicated to students, so they are clear where they should go for help and support.


The University of York has a college system, which has been instrumental in supporting and maintaining a sense of community for all students through the promotion of college welfare structures (tutors, second and third-year mentors and college managers) for those in need of support, development of college activities and effective regular communication to all students.

The colleges have also produced video resources and were instrumental in supporting students in self-isolation and those remaining on campus.

Students’ unions

As well as moving support services to email and phone, and advocacy of student issues to both the university and external bodies, University of York Students' Union created a COVID-19 community Facebook page, to allow students to access peer support.

The University of York's Graduate Students' Association created a programme of activities under the banner #KeepHomeandCarryOn.

Out of hours response

This continues to be provided by security services, based on campus and available 24/7. They are positioned as the first port of call out of hours for students, and provide a signposting service to all university and external services. This includes the university’s Campus Duty Officer, who provides an out-of-hours response for students in distress. All security operatives are trained mental health first aiders.

Targeted support

Student wellbeing service advisers at Bath Spa University have contacted groups of students who may be considered vulnerable, including care experienced students, young adult carers and those estranged from their family.

Key workers were assigned to determine where students would be staying and to maintain contact with them for the duration of the pandemic. All ‘students of concern’ have been contacted by their mental health practitioner or key worker, to ensure any safety and action plans are updated to reflect the current situation.

Additional one-off mental health and wellbeing appointments are being offered to account for the rise in concern over changes to learning and assessment.

Keele and Staffordshire Universities are collaborating on a project funded through the OfS mental health Challenge Competition, which includes refining referral pathways and strengthening relationships between higher education and the NHS.

The project is supporting a Student Mental Health Project Officer who, during the pandemic, has been working with student support services and academic departments within the universities, as well as NHS partners, to support students joining NHS frontline staff as nurses and paramedics.

The universities have been working to support these students to deal with some of the traumatic and challenging issues they may be encountering. Resources have been created, with input from Keele University’s occupational health department, for students preparing to go on placement. Information toolkits on the support available to students (from their university and other sources) have been developed for personal tutors. The toolkits also give advice on how tutors should be engaging with students.

The universities have also identified the importance of timely support. Many students are working 12-hour shifts outside of typical working hours. Additional support will be delivered by the universities for this purpose.

See resources created by Keele to support students during this time:

University Centre Weston (UCW) is part of the Weston College Group, based in Weston-Super-Mare. The UCW HEART student services team, which includes staff dedicated to welfare and support, specialist learning tutors and a careers consultant, has identified the students most at risk and reached out to them with individual support and study skills plans prior to the lockdown starting.   

Initiatives have also included online mindfulness workshops, regular catch-up sessions over the phone and even the launch of a new careers blog to encourage students to think about the future and ‘keep their eyes on the prize’. 

The University of Lincoln has a project funded through the Office for Students mental health Challenge Competition, which focuses on supporting first year undergraduate students as they transition from school and college to university.

Changes have been made to current activities so that project delivery can continue during this period. The new and revised activities support the university’s move to online teaching, along with proposed arrangements to implement transition and welcome activities in a socially distanced manner.

Face-to-face outreach work with schools is being replaced by a digital resource pack which will be available as a lesson plan for teachers to use via online learning. The packs include a presentation adapted from the project’s transitional outreach workshop, relevant digital resources, points for discussion and activities.

The project team is also planning a virtual summer school, which can be used in place of the traditional summer school.

In addition, the university has worked with Fika, the project’s digital partner, to develop a new suite of resources to help students ‘Cope with remote’. With students facing an extended period of remote study and social isolation, it is likely that all students will go through numerous phases of transition as they adapt to the different pressures of remote working, followed by a need to re-adapt quickly to ‘traditional’ means of learning once they arrive back on campus. The project is therefore making resources available to all students, to support their mental health as they transition back from remote to face-to-face study.

Work carried out with Fika throughout the period of lockdown has identified a number of shared concerns from all students. These included:

  • a loss of control
  • intolerance of uncertainty
  • a need to receive relevant information quickly
  • a loss of community through the removal or scaling-back of welcome events, societies and transitional orientation activities.

The project hopes to address some of these issues by making resources available to all students before arrival. For example, Fika has introduced a community feed which helps students to both set their intentions for the day ahead, and connect with others.

Similarly, activities for the wellbeing orientation welcome summer school will aim to alleviate transitional student concerns regarding orientation through campus tours, connecting students through virtual activities and replacing social activities with other options.

Resource packs sent out to schools will also aim to answer all the questions transitional students may have regarding university in digital form.

Student co-production is a core part of the project and can continue through recording podcasts remotely and replacing filming with animations.

A student-led project focusing on the challenges of black, Asian and minority ethnic students during transition has also been adapted to be managed and delivered digitally.

Data will be gathered as part of the continuous monitoring of the Fika app, along with metrics from social media for other resources, which will measure the reach of interventions. Virtual focus groups will also be implemented.

See some of the materials produced by The University of Lincoln:

Targeted mental health support for vulnerable groups

The University of York has specific support set up for students in the following groups, with a dedicated, named contact for each group:

A working group has also been created to address the challenges faced by students who have children or other caring responsibilities. This working group will link through to the university's staff wellbeing project, which focuses on staff support in this area, and should provide the opportunity for shared ideas and initiatives.

Supporting students with declared mental health conditions 

Support for students experiencing mental health difficulties is provided by the Open Door team (ODT), the university’s team of mental health practitioners.

Access to this service through an online referral form, phone or email has continued. Individual sessions have been moved to face-to-face online meetings, phone or email (dependent on circumstances). The ODT also has a Link Practitioner to provide a connection to NHS services, and has started to produce online resources to help with basic approaches to common problems, such as mindfulness for anxiety.

Student support plans for those with a declared disability have been reviewed by the Disability Services team as required, and mentoring support has been moved to email, phone or online sessions.

Twice-weekly ‘students of concern’ meetings (including the ODT, the Student Hub, colleges and security) continue to monitor students who have been identified as at risk, or who have safeguarding needs.

The support to study/attend procedure continues to be used as a tool to discharge the university’s duty of care towards individual students and the university community in general. It enables the university to respond appropriately to situations where there are substantial concerns about a student’s welfare or their impact on the safety or welfare of others.


The university has an established protocol and guidance detailing what to do in the event of a student death.

Given the current situation, grief and bereavement awareness training is being planned for key staff (for example mental health first aiders), to support staff and students who may be affected by a death in the university community.

Financial support

In view of the challenges facing students, the university launched an emergency student support fund. A budget of over £320,000 was made available for the first two rounds, and fundraising is currently underway to increase the level of funding for a third round.

Postgraduate research students

Additional measures have been taken to support postgraduate research (PGR) students. All information for PGR students and supervisors is disseminated from the York Graduate Research School (YGRS) homepage, including a newsletter, PGR community blog and a series of FAQs. Other support includes:

  • access to a range of specific resources for research students on the YGRS support and wellbeing page, including access to ‘The Wellbeing Thesis’ online tool
  • a PGR student-led PhD survival project
  • support of the Postgraduate Research Liaison Officer (a final year PhD student) to submit ideas on what other support is required and to bring together research students from across the university
  • a pilot mentoring scheme for PGR students.

Healthcare students moving into clinical practice 

The university provides 1:1 video appointments for students who are experiencing emotional, psychological or mental health distress caused by the coronavirus crisis. This is especially the case for student nurses and student midwives who are directly or indirectly affected by the crisis.

Weekly video meetings with student groups act as an open forum where students can talk and feel supported in a safe and secure environment with the senior academic team. The university has also produced a series of comprehensive FAQs for students covering all aspects of student and academic life linked to coronavirus, and are working with Health Education England to provide a guidance booklet 'Student support guidance during the COVID-19 outbreak'.

All personal supervisors have been asked to make contact with each of their students every week to touch base and to refer any students to the department’s student and academic support service for triage where required.

Student co-development

Norland College is a specialist higher education provider of early years education, with students undertaking a three-year BA (Hons) in Early Years Development and Learning, alongside the four-year Norland Diploma.

The college has approximately 300 undergraduate students based in Bath, undertaking a combination of academic lectures, practical diploma-related sessions and placement work.

There has been a peer support programme in place at Norland for a number of years, with a focus on group events to facilitate student links, such as those held during welcome week.

A much more extensive training programme was planned for the 2020 summer term - this was to be a five-day programme covering skills relating to listening, summarising, reflecting, signposting, and managing confidentiality, risk and safeguarding issues.

By Easter it was clear that these training sessions could not take place in person. The college considered how best to continue with its plans with the additional challenges of delivering new material remotely, uncertainty about staff resource, how to manage issues relating to risk and safeguarding and the need to address skills required to provide support via video.

The commitment of the college to developing the programme, and the potential increased need for peer support during this time, meant that the decision was made to pursue the training in a new form.

To date three of the eight online sessions have been completed. Students who have completed the sessions have demonstrated high levels of thoughtful and reflective participation, and feedback has been very positive. Strong interest and commitment were expressed by potential student trainees in participating in more in-depth training.

Support has been received from senior management, college colleagues and students, which has been an important factor in the positive momentum of the initiative.

Staff members involved in developing this programme have found it useful to connect with other student support professionals, particularly via AMOSSHE, the student services organisation, and Heads of University Counselling Services networks, to explore issues and understand how others are addressing these challenges.

The college’s student body consists mainly of mature learners with significant responsibilities and other pressures. Through a coronavirus strategy group, and with collaboration with students, the college created an evaluation form for online learning after the first week of implementation. Students were able to give feedback on any additional support needed, such as academic and IT help, and suggest topics for coronavirus information in the college’s ‘Mind Connect’ wellbeing app. This content, including signposts to useful resources, is co-developed with student focus groups and representatives. The feedback has also resulted in a weekly online mindfulness session for students and staff.

Students who have caring responsibilities or are key workers are offered reasonable adjustments, including extra hours with academics and wellbeing check-ins offering emotional support. The approach is continually adapted and enhanced based on student and staff feedback.

Health partnerships

Five regional hubs in Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, North London and Sheffield are developing models of partnership with the NHS as part of an Office for Students Challenge Competition funded project, Student Mental Health Partnerships, led by UWE Bristol.

Two project partners, the University of Sheffield and University College London (UCL), are including academic clinical psychology departments in this effort to improve outcomes for students and reduce pressure on universities. Clinical psychologists and other psychological practitioners are trained for their NHS roles by universities, which organise placements, typically in NHS services. The Student Mental Health Partnerships project has enabled the teams from Sheffield and UCL to collaborate closely while their university clinics have been set up, sharing learning and developing these models.

The clinics have adapted rapidly to the context of the coronavirus pandemic. In Sheffield, plans to start the new clinic were brought forward, enabling the University Counselling Service to start hosting two trainee clinical psychologists in May. These professionals are providing individual treatment, and also developing online therapeutic group activities.

The UCL Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology university clinic was set up at the start of the 2019-20 academic year and had two trainees on joint placements with Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services when the lockdown started. These trainees continue to provide individual treatment remotely and have pre-recorded online psychoeducational wellbeing workshops, as an interim measure.

Two more trainees have since joined the team and are planning a comparison of pre-recorded and interactive workshops for next term. Students’ Union UCL is particularly concerned about barriers to students accessing support in 2020-21, if some teaching is delivered remotely. The university clinic will be supporting the students’ union to set up a peer support network, providing training and supervision based on the adapted competency framework.

Despite differences between the clinical governance structures of the clinics, with one based in the university counselling service and the other part of the NHS, an important synergy is the involvement of the academic clinical psychology departments in the clinics.

Meanwhile the Bristol hub has embraced online meetings, with particular success in its Practice Liaison Forum. This was started by the hub in September 2019 to provide a space for information sharing and mutual learning between practitioners in local NHS services and mental health services at the University of Bristol and UWE Bristol. Since it has moved online, partners across the city have stated their commitment to remaining engaged with the project, underlining the importance of universities and NHS working together.

Meeting times have been shortened, and agendas tweaked to bring more focus on service-critical updates. This has allowed services to highlight where they have resources, and where they have blockages and challenges. This joint working aims to produce better mental health outcomes for students in the city.


The NHS has provided guidance on mental wellbeing while staying at home.

The Mental Health Foundation has published guidance for looking after mental health during the coronavirus outbreak.

Mental Health UK has developed information and tips for managing mental health during the coronavirus outbreak.

Mind, the mental health charity, has developed information resources in response to COVID-19.

The Samaritans charity has published support content in response to coronavirus and provides a confidential phone service for those experiencing mental health difficulties.

Refuge provides specialist support to survivors of domestic abuse.

The UK Government has developed guidance for the public on the mental health and wellbeing aspects of coronavirus.

World Health Organization has published mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Charity Rethink Mental Illness, have produced an online hub to provide practical support and information that is useful for people living with, or supporting people with mental illness. They’ve also published digital editions of their Step Up Universities Zine produced by students, for students.  

Wavehill has produced a report exploring the impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the OfS's Mental Health Challenge Competition.

Student-focused mental health and wellbeing resources and support

Papyrus, the national charity dedicated to the prevention of young suicide. See their website for help and advice.

Student Minds, the UK student mental health charity, has developed information for the higher education community to look after wellbeing during the coronavirus outbreak.

Resources from university and college representative bodies

Association of Colleges, the membership organisation for further education, sixth form, tertiary and specialist colleges in England, has produced a coronavirus resource hub.

Guild HE, a representative body for 50 higher education providers, has developed general advice and guidance for members in response to coronavirus. 

Independent HE, the UK membership organisation and national representative body for independent providers of higher education, professional training and pathways, has developed a coronavirus information hub for independent providers.

Universities UK, the representative organisation for 137 UK universities, has developed webpages providing information and resources on coronavirus for universities.

Resources for healthcare students and NHS workers

General Medical Council has published information for medical students, including provisional registration for those in their final year.

Nursing and Midwifery Council has provided a guide on common questions about their role as a regulator when it comes to coronavirus.

Student accommodation: information and resources

Further information and resources can be found in our student accommodation briefing note.

Published 15 May 2020
Last updated 05 August 2020
05 August 2020
Link added to the report on the impact of coronavirus on OfS Mental Health Challenge Competition
22 July 2020
Two new case studies published
21 July 2020
One case study added
03 July 2020
One case study added
23 June 2020
Six new case studies published and page restructure
12 June 2020
Two new case studies for University of York added, and case study for Goldsmiths
03 June 2020
Five new case studies added
22 May 2020
Two new case studies added, link to Rethink Mental Illness charity added to resources and three documents added to Keele's case study
20 May 2020
Five new case studies added

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