TRIGGER WARNING: This article includes references to mental illness (OCD; depression) and self-harm.
Since their return to campus, students have faced mass isolations due to COVID-19 outbreaks in accommodation blocks. Students were already facing a dramatically different year. But the isolation and increasing social restrictions could also have a severe impact on their mental health.
Students’ mental health has increasingly become a topic of discussion in the media. A high incidence of student suicides at Bristol University hit the headlines back in 2017. Universities UK produced a national strategy to tackle the problem in the same year.
A 2019 survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) revealed that 17% of students reported having a mental health condition (up from 12% in 2016). One in four said they often or always felt lonely.
With the pandemic causing an increase in mental health issues in the population at large (an ONS survey showed one in five adults experienced depression during in lockdown), there are fears that the coronavirus pandemic will exacerbate issues already faced by students starting university.
Fiona Drouet, a member of the Scottish Government’s National Suicide Prevention Leadership group warned in an email to the Scottish Government that student lockdowns were a “mental health tragedy waiting to happen”.
Data collected last year showed that students with mental health issues were waiting up to 12 weeks to receive support. More students needing support and stretched budgets have caused a strain on university mental health services and this seems likely to worsen due to the pandemic.
The Office For Students announced £3 million of funding for platform Student Space, run by charity Student Minds, in July.
The platform offers extra mental health support for students, alongside university services. The aim is to limit the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their mental health.
Rosa, a first year student at Manchester Metropolitan University had to isolate for four days whilst waiting on test results. She found even that short period of isolation tricky. “I didn’t enjoy not being able to go for a walk even though it was only for four days. I can’t even begin to imagine how those having to isolate for two weeks” she said.
She feels that her university isn’t doing enough to support those students who have been isolating. “I recently saw on Twitter that my University is going to be doing more to help students isolating. Although I think it’s good and needed, it’s too little, too late. It seems like they only announced the support because of the backlash to the university enforced lockdown of Cambridge and Birley Halls”.
She added: “Personal tutors are doing their best and I really appreciate that, but there seems be little consideration for it (students’ mental health). They need to have an action plan ready, students need support with getting food if they’re isolating, they need financial help and mental health check-ups from tutors”.
It’s not just freshers that have been struggling though. Ruth, a final year student, struggled so much with isolation that she ended up in A&E after self-harming. She only wanted fresh air, but was not allowed.
The university was aware of Ruth’s mental health history.
Of her experience, Ruth said; “I was isolated because I had been at a training event and someone at my table said they had symptoms the next day. As I live in halls, I was made to isolate in my room for fourteen days. The girl never got a test though, so I have no idea whether she had it or not. I already have a history of OCD and self-harm. Being trapped in a room, away from everyone else, for what may be nothing made me deteriorate so much”. She ended up with eight stitches after a visit to A&E and returned home to receive a negative test result.
Ruth was able to get advice from her university’s mental health service as they knew about her history. However, the service is only for students who are referred to it.
She said, “As far as I’m aware there are people students can talk to, and people who work in halls, but other than that, I think it’s a case of students contacting the counselling service. I was not offered anything, but as I’m known to the Mental Health Advisory team, I got some support from them”.
Ruth feels some changes could have made her experience easier. She said: “Finding a way to allow people to go out for some fresh air, something that simple would have helped. It’s a big campus with a lot of space, so I feel like this could have been allowed. Also I think the counselling service directly contacting students without making people have to contact themselves would allow isolating students to feel more in contact with the outside world”.
Kate, a first year student studying in London, has had a reasonably good start to her university experience. She hasn’t had to isolate, but feels it has been very difficult to meet people.
She said: “Personally, I’m lucky as I have the ability to FaceTime all of my family members and have lovely flatmates, but the national guidelines are quite isolating. I feel that it would be very easy for mental health to decline for students in general due to our inability to meet new people and get out of the flat a lot”.
She does feel her university have been very supportive and helpful through the difficult circumstances.
She said: “They’ve been really good so far, they’ve given us a peer guide and a personal tutor. The lecturers have made it clear that we can go to them with any problems”.
Supporting students through the new normal must be a priority. It’s all well and good making sure that the pandemic is contained. However if mental health support is not provided for students, we risk swapping a COVID-19 crisis for another generation of students struggling with their mental health.
Words by Jo Elliott
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