I have a vivid memory of the moment my family dropped me off at university. I was terrified – as someone who lives with anxiety and had always relished in the comfort and security of home, moving almost four hours away to live with complete strangers was always going to be a challenge.
Watching my parents and sister walk out the front door of my accommodation was like an out-of-body experience – like I was playing a part in some imaginary life detached from my reality.
What happened next was a bit of a blur. To my surprise, I coped pretty well those first couple of weeks – whenever I felt anxiety or homesickness creeping in, I tried hard to distract myself by heading out to a freshers meet up or attending parties with my flatmates.
When I look back now, I realise that, despite all those positive experiences, my mental health was still incredibly fragile during that time. Detached from all the support systems I relied upon at home, I spent that first term teetering on an emotional edge; I was fine as long as everything went as expected – I used milestones such as being able to go home for the first time and submitting my first essay as stepping stones to get me through that term.
Watching this year’s students head to university for the first time, that feeling of emotional unease came flooding back to me. At a time in life when thousands rely upon everything going according to plan, today’s young people are being forced to reckon with a constantly changing agenda – from coronavirus outbreaks on campus to having their lectures moved online. Add to that the fact that many are now being restricted from socialising outside their flat and having to stay in their rooms for long periods of the day, and it’s hardly surprising so many students are finding this time particularly difficult.
Elena*, 19, who is in her first year studying English and History and is currently having to isolate in her student halls, says she feels “overwhelmed and disillusioned”.
“I am isolating in halls with people I barely know, and I fear that a continuous cycle of testing and isolating will characterise my first year,” she tells Stylist. “Students inevitably had to socialise during the first week of term, yet some took more irresponsible decisions than others.”
She continues: “The whole experience is scary and unnerving. It feels like we were only told it was safe to move in because the unis needed our rent and tuition money. My course was also changed due to budget cuts and I’m nervous about the challenging academic work on top of the mental strain of moving away into a high-risk city.”
And it’s not just the freshers who are suffering as a result of the uncertainty facing UK university campuses at the moment. Returning undergraduate and postgraduate students – who typically live in privately rented accommodation off-campus – are still having to come to terms with a university experience wildly different from the one they’d been taught to expect, with little chance to socialise and on-campus events being postponed for the time being.
Rosie*, 20, who is in her second year studying English, says the whole experience has been “very confusing”.
“We’ve had barely any communication with how lectures and seminars are working,” she explains. “It’s really annoying how students are getting blamed for the second wave because all I’ve done is sit in my house for two weeks basically.
“I’ve been to the pub twice and out for dinner twice like any normal person, but I’ve heard nothing of any house parties or crazy gatherings, so I don’t know where everyone is getting that idea from.”
Sophia*, a 26-year-old forensic psychology PhD student whose course placements could be delayed by the pandemic, says studying from home has left her feeling demotivated when it comes to her course work.
“We’re paying £10,000 out of our own pocket because it’s a postgraduate course and it just feels really difficult and like we’re not getting the full experience. I fully appreciate it’s nothing to do with the university, it’s just really difficult in order to progress and learn at postgraduate level,” she says.
“It’s also quite demotivating sitting at home and writing essays because there’s no balance between going to university, getting out the house and then coming home and doing whatever you need to do in the evening.”
No matter where they’re studying, it’s clear that students are finding the changes which have come as a result of the coronavirus pandemic particularly difficult – especially those first-year students who are dealing with the additional pressure of moving away from home for the first time.
The worrying part about this rise in stress and anxiety among students is that universities were already facing a mental health crisis before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Since the early 2000s, the number of students facing mental health problems has been on the up – in 2015/16 over 15,000 first-year students in UK universities reported that they had a mental health problem, compared to 3,000 in 2006.
With so many students facing additional pressures during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worrying to think about how many more students could be facing mental health problems as a result.
However, it isn’t all bad news when it comes to students’ mental wellbeing. As a result of the additional pressures of the pandemic, new resources are being put in place to ensure that students are able to get timely support – a problem which many universities have faced due to the rise in demand.
Student Space – the new platform set up by student mental health organisation Student Minds – has been set up to provide students access to dedicated support, as well as resources that can help them face the challenges of coronavirus and a guide to the help on offer at their own university.
The Mental Health Foundation and NHS Every Mind Matters also have dedicated guides to help young people struggling to cope as a result of the pandemic, which include helpful information about taking care of your mental health, the importance of self-care and a list of dedicated helplines for people in need of support.
As someone who found my first term of university particularly draining and faced a mental health crisis in my second year, I know first-hand how isolating it can feel to struggle with your mental health during what is supposed to be a “fun” and “exciting” time – and I want today’s students to know that it’s OK to ask for help.
It can be hard to admit that you need help – especially when you’re trying to pretend that everything’s fine – but if you’re struggling at the moment, it’s important to reach out and access the resources and support systems that are available to you.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.
For confidential support you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com.
*names have been changed