Forcing students to stay at their universities will cause a mental health crisis

Take it from us, the actual students

Leaving home and moving to university is meant to be an exciting experience. An opportunity to meet new people, try new things and then at the end of the term you get to come home for Christmas to your family and friends and tell them all about it. A mission report. A proof you’re doing well and all grown up, ready to put your feet up and rest for a few weeks with your fam.

Well, put that idea in the bin because apparently, that’s not an option for this year’s students. At least if the UK government gets its way. Instead, we are expecting students, let’s not forget some of whom are barely adults (turning 18 in the months just before university does not mean you have the tools to be equipped for adult life – I am nearly 21 and I do not consider myself an adult), and we are throwing them out into the big wide world and saying fend for yourself at all costs, ALONE. Don’t think about returning home unless you want to do it FOR GOOD and forfeit your uni experience altogether! Oh and… that’s just for Scotland.

No one will deny that university can be an isolating experience at times, but for many students having the thought that they will get to return home in the coming months is a steadying force that keeps them going. Not for the Class of 2020-2021. No more trips home. No hugs from Mum. No homecooked meals. No pubs trips with your lifelong mates from home. If you go to university, you are GOING to university and not coming back.

Potentially the best part of university is the freedom that comes with it. However, the more restrictions imposed by the government, the less freedom students are being awarded. You can’t meet up with your friends when you choose, you can’t go out after 10pm, you can’t go home for Christmas because it’s all forbidden. And that’s not even considering the students in halls who get stuck isolating in their first few weeks of uni, literally trapped in one flat.

Not only are students being used as the scapegoats for the second wave of the pandemic but they are now being stripped of all their liberties and being asked to pay £9,250 for the privilege. If you want to sit there, like the government, and think that this will not have a single effect on the mental health of students nationwide you are either naive or a fool.

The excitement and joy of university have just been superseded by dread and fear of isolation, sickness and anxiety. And just to make all of those feelings intensified, no student can see their family. Who, for a large percentage of students, act as a primary support system. Regardless of whether you are ill (corona or otherwise), struggling, or homesick you have no choice but to stay where you are.

Just in case it is not already blatantly obvious as to why locking students into their universities is possibly the worst idea the government has had so far during the handling of Covid-19, let me go into depth:

Returning home for the Christmas holidays is universally recognised by students as a recovery period. By the end of first term students are burnt out both physically and mentally. In first term, your immune system will most likely take the biggest battering its seen so far in its life. Between your new schedule, lifestyle and the new people you have come into contact with, it is inevitable that you will become unwell at some stage.

Let’s also remember that not all students are blessed with luxurious accommodation. We live in damp conditions, flats with little to no heating, we struggle with mould which can sit on your lungs (super healthy, I know). I’d challenge Bojo to survive two weeks of self iso in a student house without immediately wanting to book a one way trip to Chequers. Thus, coming home to recover is fundamental to make sure that students are ready to go for term two. Even the universities know this, with most of them starting exams in January so that students have the opportunity to go home and rest up and revise over the Christmas break. Unsurprisingly, students perform better when they are healthy – does someone fancy mentioning this to the cabinet?

Also, don’t be thinking that all of these issues can be fixed with lifestyle changes in situ and a trip to the doctor, they can’t. They inevitably also impact students’ mental health. Burn out coupled with exhaustion can lead to depression. These COVID restrictions keep people stuck indoors, making them even more likely to be affected by seasonal affective disorder. Last but not least, physical conditions leaving students unable to complete their studies to the best of their abilities can cause huge damage to self-esteem, increase anxiety, and leave students wanting to drop out of university. So please don’t tell me that leaving students in university for that long will be fine.

Universities are nowhere near equipped to deal with the number of mental health issues that are likely to arise out of leaving students in for this length of time. Pastoral systems and counselling facilities are already oversubscribed, underfunded and in many cases poorly thought through as a support system during a pandemic. For many students, rather than putting more pressure on an already failing system, they would rather rely on their families and support systems at home. However, many may be forced to rely on their universities or their flatmates (who make up their government-approved household) as they have no other choice when they are effectively trapped at university.

Over 15,000 students suffer from mental health conditions every year without the impact of a global pandemic. Parental and familial support systems are fundamental to those students who are already suffering from mental health conditions without taking into account the new issues that will arise as a result of the virus. The restrictions the government is placing on students’ freedom and households are destined for a catastrophic outcome and I implore the government to reconsider.