Written by Rosie Neill

Product Marketing Manager

We were thrilled to be joined by Dr Dominique Thompson for our first staff webinar of 2021. Dominique is the UK’s leading expert on student mental health, as well as an award winning GP, TEDx speaker, author and educator. She has over 20 years of clinical experience caring for students.

Dominique engaged in a very important and insightful conversation with our Founder & CEO, Vivi, about the impact of Covid on students (and their finances) and the wider implications of money worries on overall health and wellbeing.

Don’t panic if you missed the session – here’s a summary of the questions Dominique and Vivi discussed and the answers they gave.

What has been the impact of Covid on student wellbeing?

Students have been struggling with their wellbeing since before Covid. In fact, Gen Z (currently aged 11-25) were already struggling more than any previous generation. That said, Covid has added an extra layer of pressure for this group.

Young people’s biological need for connection

For students, Covid has come at a time when they most want to connect with others. Young people’s brains are biologically still developing, with one of the most overwhelming biological drives being to socialise and form connections. Covid has brought trauma for today’s young people in the form of isolation and uncertainty.

Uncertainty about the future

We’re all uncomfortable and can become anxious when we don’t know what’s going to happen next. But this anxiety can be heightened for young people, since this may be the first time they’ve ever experienced such extreme uncertainty about the future. 

With a sharp increase in young people – aged as young as 7 – visiting their GP with anxiety, there’s no doubt that Covid has had a big impact on wellbeing, regardless of the fact that young people had struggles previously too.

What can universities and colleges do to support student wellbeing?

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge how hard staff have already been working for almost a year to support students throughout the pandemic. All of us, including the Blackbullion team, Dominique and students themselves are hugely grateful and respectful of this.

It’s likely that universities and colleges are already doing many of the following suggestions of ways to support student wellbeing.

Dealing with the uncertainty

One of the things that students have told us they most want from their university or college at this time is transparency.

Of course, organisations are dealing with uncertainty themselves and are often waiting for last minute government guidance. But communicating this in itself can be hugely helpful to students, with messaging that centres around “we don’t know the answer just yet but we will let you know as soon as we do”.

Students have also responded well to being asked direct questions like: “How can we make this less stressful and anxiety inducing for you?”

Providing long-term support

Today’s students are going to graduate into an economy with less jobs available and possible restrictions on international opportunities. An idea Dominique focused on throughout the conversation was to think about student support in terms of ‘recession-proofing’. 

With this in mind, there are lessons we can learn from previous recessions to help students:

  • Build social networks – both personal networks for emotional support, as well as professional communities for careers support. LinkedIn can be a great platform to help with this
  • Provide long-term careers advice – providing valuable and practical careers advice that is available for students post-graduation
  • Develop money skills – financial education is important to help students prepare for a career that starts during a recession

Can impactful student support be provided remotely?

Covid has fast tracked the online and remote support provisions of universities, colleges and even GPs. The restrictions associated with the pandemic have meant that almost all organisations have had to overcome any previous resistance to introducing change and technology, because there has simply been no other option.

Of course, it’s important that organisations resume face-to-face support offerings when it is safe to do so, but online provisions should continue too. Some students will always prefer a more distant connection and wish to avoid face-to-face conversations – again, this isn’t new. 

Going forwards, the most impactful way to deliver support to students will be to offer an integrated approach both digitally and in-person.

remote support

How can staff best encourage students that are struggling to make their first visit to a GP?

Register early

Ideally, one of the first things students will do when starting university is to register with a GP. It’s even better if this is with an on-campus GP as these doctors will likely be specialists in the health of young people.

Students can think they won’t need medical help while at university, but registering as early as possible means it will be easier to get support if and when it is needed.

Demystify seeking help

For some young people, visiting a GP can be an entirely new experience. There are actions students can take to ensure they feel as comfortable as possible:

  • Ask peers for recommendations – find out the medical professionals that other students have had a good experience with 
  • See different GPs – each GP will have a specialism (e.g. dermatology, nutrition, sports injuries, etc.) so one might be more suitable than another
  • Build a relationship with a GP – if possible, returning to the same GP once a suitable one has been found

How are students incurring extra debt as a result of Covid?

Recent studies by the National Union of Students (NUS) have found that today, there are 2x as many students that are worried about money in some form as there were just 4 years ago.

Covid has only accelerated this, with lots of new pandemic-related reasons why more and more students are struggling financially. These include the loss of part-time jobs due to lockdowns, the furlough scheme, time off sick or isolating, and increased spending on things like alcohol, takeaways and online shopping to try and ‘get through’ this period.

Risky financial decisions

A key concern is that money worries and debt can drive students towards more risky financial decisions, such as sex work, taking part in medical trials, gambling, or perhaps working endless night shifts. This can all have a ripple effect on students’ long-term mental health and wellbeing.

debt and student wellbeing

What’s the link between money worries and wellbeing?

Money concerns and mental health issues: a cycle

Money is a vital part of all of our lives, yet it can often feel like a conversation that’s separate to mental health and wellbeing. In reality, for many of us, finances are integral to managing our stress and anxiety levels.

Money stresses can lead to poor sleep and feelings like anxiety, anger, shame, guilt and embarrassment. In turn, all of these can impact on the ability to study, maintain relationships, get a job, etc. Financial worries can also impact our self-esteem and confidence, making it more difficult to seek help when it’s needed.

Money issues have been proven to create mental health issues and at the same time, those with a mental health issue are more likely to experience money problems. This can become a vicious cycle.

Financial education for students

For many students, money is a constant worry. Of course, we all have debt to a certain degree and most students will be incurring it as they study (by borrowing money for tuition fees and living costs from the Student Loans Company). 

However, this is different from unnecessary debt; the type of debt that makes students feel out of control and unable to see the way out in the long-term.

As it stands, financial education is often lacking for young people and this can result in many feeling helpless and lost when it comes to their money.

“Learning to deal with money is a life skill – just like learning how to have social relationships or how to study.”

Dr Dominique Thompson

How can staff engage students in financial education?

Taking a whole institution approach

Taking a whole institutional approach is a hugely impactful way to engage students in financial education, with wellbeing and support teams working closely with financial advisors to educate and upskill students financially.

Students will thrive when universities and colleges see themselves as holistic institutions where students not only gain a quality education, but also the social and other vital skills (including money management) that will set them on the best possible path for success throughout their life. 

Ideally, this would be taken a step further and become a whole community approach: could signposting to financial education be considered by GPs in conjunction with other wellbeing interventions like counselling and medication?

Starting small

There are lots of topics to cover when it comes to financial education. To avoid overwhelming students who may already be struggling, smart small – perhaps with a ‘money basic’ like how to budget.

Facilitating peer support

The most powerful way to engage students is with peer-led campaigns. So if you’re planning a campaign or workshop that focuses on finances, could you get other, perhaps older, students involved to share their personal experience? 

Find out how King’s College London is doing just this through their Student Money Mentor project.

Providing a safe, non-judgmental environment

Remembering the vicious cycle of money issues causing mental health issues and vice versa, it’s vital to ensure students feel comfortable and not judged – or they won’t engage at all.

Are there any resources for staff to signpost students to?

While there’s still work to do to bring financial education (and its link with wellbeing) to the fore, there are some nationally available resources that staff can point students towards. 

For specialist financial learning, staff can direct students towards the Blackbullion platform and student blog.

For wellbeing and mental health support, check out:

Watch the recording

If you have any questions or comments for Dominique, you can get in touch with her directly on Twitter. 

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