“This doesn’t feel like living”: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected the Mental Health of Vulnerable University Students in the United Kingdom
Charlotte Rose HORNERContact / Kontakt / Kapcsolat, Siobhan  HUGH-JONES, Ed SUTHERLAND, Cathy BRENNAN & Charlotte SADLER-SMITH
EJMH Vol 17 Issue 2 (2022) 52-64; https://doi.org/10.5708/EJMH.17.2022.2.7
Received: 2022. 03. 15.; Accepted: 2022. 05. 10.; Online date: 2022. 10. 18.
Section: Research Article
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Introduction: Concerns about student mental health have been rising globally. The COVID-19 pandemic triggered unprecedented disruption in higher education as universities were forced to close and adapt their education delivery. Understanding the impact of this on vulnerable students can inform higher education’s response to future similar events.

Aims: To understand the lived experience of first year university students studying in the United Kingdom, who had a history of poor mental health and lived on a low income, we examined the inter-relatedness between mental health, financial strain, remote learning and engagement, and well-being.

Methods: At the start of their first year of study, whilst the UK was in periods of lockdown, we conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with 20 diverse first-year university students. We analyzed data using interpretative phenomenological analysis.

Results: The pandemic’s impact on student mental health, engagement and learning remained pervasive and serious. Key themes conveyed how isolation triggered past mental health difficulties and a perception that the universities – and government – had forgotten about them. Students also experienced greater difficulty in navigating the liminal threshold between being a child and an adult, and having the additional worry of financial instability left students with fewer coping resources.

Conclusions: To mitigate the impact of future pandemic responses, constant and effective communication is needed between faculty and students to safeguard against isolation and low motivation. Vulnerable students need guidance in coping skills to manage mental health risks when they are away from family and familiar support networks.


COVID-19 pandemic, mental health, university, socioeconomic, qualitative

Corresponding author

Charlotte Rose HORNER

University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom




Siobhan HUGH-JONES: University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom. https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5307-1203

Ed SUTHERLAND: University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom. https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3921-7154

Cathy BRENNAN: University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom. https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5258-8497


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