My terrible halls of residence made my mental health so bad that I had to move
There’s a loneliness epidemic and bad halls are making it worse
It’s no secret that uni halls can be particularly grim places to be – scratchy carpets, unwashed pasta pans, and mattresses with suspicious stains are all part of it. During normal times, these are things you can live with. But during the coronavirus crisis, when first years aren’t able to leave their rooms for weeks at a time, forbidden from socialising, and in a new environment away from home for the first time? It’s hard to escape the idea that substandard halls students are living in are contributing to the mental health crisis that they’re struggling through this term.
Molly, a first year Manchester student who has struggled with Seasonal Affective Disorder for two years, had to isolate in her halls recently after getting Covid. This, combined with persistent building work on the location that restricted the light coming through her window, posed a very serious risk for her mental health. “We had some periods of incredibly loud drilling noises which caused huge issues when we were trying to do work, and attend virtual lectures,” Molly said. Driven to distraction by the unannounced building works, Molly moved to an entirely different residence to escape.
Thousands of students across the country are dealing with issues similar to Molly’s, where they often have to isolate in properties that aren’t suitable during to outbreaks of Covid. In a period where mental health is compromised by so many other factors, why are students still being let down by the places that they’re spending the most amount of their time and money on?
‘As soon as building work started, a fence was built directly outside my window, so I felt totally trapped’
Molly lived in Piccadilly Point, a private residence owned by Unite which asked her £170 a week on a reduced rate. She described it as a nice room with good space, but the building works in and around the residence, combined with her struggles with SAD, made living there a hellish experience.
Manchester made headlines in early November after students were caged in with metal fencing, but this isn’t the first time their halls have received bad press. Whilst the University of Manchester has conceded to the calls of its students to get refunds on rent, their private residents have been left feeling ignored, with the tower occupations and mass protests being a far cry from the loneliness and isolation faced by students like Molly.
“My room here definitely made things worse. In winter, due to a lack of light, I have had issues with SAD. My mood noticeably drops, I struggle with having the motivation to do anything at all, and I feel exhausted and have issues waking up. I would easily sleep for 15 hours of the day and my attendance at lectures was awful as a result. This year, I have struggled because it’s not been possible to go to the gym and I have to limit going out due to Covid.”
The Tab’s You Matter campaign is reporting on the student mental health crisis this term.
Read about how eleven universities didn’t appoint any new mental health staff this year.
Unite Students told The Tab that the building work at Piccadilly Point is being carried out to replace existing external high-pressure laminate panels with solid aluminium cladding. It apologised to students in advance and offered the option of students having “one-way privacy film” put on their windows.
Molly’s situation is like countless others across the country – trapped in halls of residence that aren’t fit for long periods of living and studying. The lack of basic comfort in halls can have a significant impact on poor mental health, says Linday Percival, psychotherapist and spokesperson for UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). “Mental health problems can be exacerbated by poor housing conditions,” she told The Tab.
“Natural light is essential to wellbeing as it helps regulate the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. This, in turn, can affect appetite and mood and lead to anxiety and depression.”
Access to daylight has been proven to have a significant impact on people being restricted to rooms for long periods of time, such as in hospitals. According to a study by scientists at Oregon Health and Science University, morning light has been found to be twice as effective in treating SAD as evening light, whilst other studies have found that patients have had shorter hospital stays in sunnier rooms when compared to dimly lit rooms. It’s easy to see how the halls that students are spending nearly 24 hours a day in are causing these same issues.
‘I had to self-isolate for 10 days after testing positive for Covid and it was a total nightmare’
Molly’s experience with halls at Manchester was only made worse when she had to self isolate, at several points even being forced to leave her room to collect deliveries. “We only had one person working on reception at a time, so I ended up having to leave my flat more than once to pick up deliveries. The member of staff was off delivering things to other people, and I, therefore, had to do it myself,” she told The Tab.
“I felt bad for reception staff. One of them in particular was great and replied to my many emails with as much guidance as she could, but it felt like the company hadn’t prepared at all for the idea of multiple people catching Covid at the same time, despite the fact it was basically inevitable.”
It’s not pampered freshers complaining that their kitchens don’t have AGAs. The substandard quality of halls isn’t just making students lonely, but rather becoming seriously detrimental to their general wellbeing. If Covid is inevitable in spaces where people are living in close proximity to one another, Linday tells us, then so is the potential for serious mental health problems to arise when they eventually have to isolate in a single room: “Fresh air helps the body self-regulate. Shared social space can encourage interaction with others who may tend to withdraw into their rooms and feel lonely and isolated.”
‘Face-to-face socialising is extremely important and, without this connection, human beings tend to suffer’
Loneliness can be particularly stressful for students. With no social spaces and restricted social activities due to Covid, people become lonely, which can make them further withdraw from others, making the problem worse.
The stress from the building works, as well as her struggles with SAD, eventually meant that Molly had to make the difficult decision to leave her halls altogether, causing further issues. “The fact I ended up having to move because I knew I couldn’t put up with living in a building site for the entire year caused me a lot of stress and confusion. I had to leave flatmates I’d settled in with, and meet new people which was very frustrating,” she said.
Critically, these rooms are not designed for students to be confined to them for long periods of time
Matt is a first year Royal Holloway student who lives in the uni’s Reid accommodation, which houses 287 students in ensuite rooms that start at £5,222. Each block is catered and doesn’t have a fully functioning kitchen, but instead a small “pantry” that consists of everything you’d find in a normal kitchen except an oven and hobs.
He told The Tab that the halls haven’t been updated adequately to accommodate the needs of the modern student, especially during the pandemic. “Reid doesn’t have a good Wi-Fi connection and it’s clear they haven’t invested in it for years which, now most of our work is online, makes learning impossible and adds to the stress of university when you can barely upload assignments,” he said.
In addition, there were a number of immediate issues that the university failed to deal with upon moving in. “When I first moved in, the bottom panel of the front door was smashed and glass was falling onto the stairs leading up to our front door, and it took them two months to fix after constant emails,” Matt told The Tab. “The boiler didn’t work and was leaking everywhere, so much so we had to tell the university that it was literally pouring out water for them to actually fix it.”
Isolated and alone, many students don’t even have the fortune of being able to make friends in their halls, something that Matt is thankful for. “Thanks to some amazing flatmates I’ve managed to keep my mental health at a good level, and it makes the flat bearable with all of its issues,” he said.
“However, they are the only reason, and I feel that if I didn’t have my flatmates around me, my mental health would’ve seriously deteriorated.”
A spokesperson for Royal Holloway, University of London, told us that the Wi-Fi issue has been resolved and that refurbishment programme is under review. They also stressed that the health and wellbeing of their students is their utmost priority and that they feel it’s important that students feel comfortable and safe in their accommodation.
‘It seems the university cares more about profit than the wellbeing of us living here in halls’
Halls are designed with the chief aim of balancing cost-efficiency with the essentials needed to live, and whilst some do a good job at doing so, many narrowly comply with modern regulation; thin carpets line the floors whilst small windows allow in a sliver of light and don’t open wider than six inches.
Architect Frazer Wilson told us that their chief aim is to house people cheaply, and that can come at a cost to mental health. “Saving money is engrained into every element of university accommodation,” he told The Tab. “When it comes to flooring, thin carpets are a lot cheaper to install than nicer flooring as well as lower maintenance. Cheap partition walls offer less insulation and no regard for acoustics. All rooms are designed to exactly the same floorplan. Glazing is extremely expensive so they usually install windows with the minimum requirements so that they’re just about legal.
“Psychologically speaking, natural daylighting has a profound impact on mental health. The size of windows and the colour of carpets and walls can act to further diminish the natural lighting making the space more claustrophobic. These rooms have not been designed to be lived in for long periods of time.”
‘It is no stretch to say that halls are absolutely designed for profit to take precedence over all else’
The resounding message from mental health professionals, students and architects is that halls are not places for students to be kept for long periods of time, and Molly knows this more than anyone. Her isolation and loneliness is largely due to halls of residence that have let her down: “Students in private accommodation have been ignored by universities, and the private companies raking in thousands of pounds from students need to be held accountable.”
A spokesperson for Unite Students told The Tab that Molly has been offered a different room in another accommodation. “We are sorry for any inconvenience our external cladding works at Piccadilly Point is causing. We anticipated there would be a level of disturbance for all students and wrote to everyone apologising in advance of the work commencing last month. In this student’s case, we have offered her the opportunity to move to our neighbouring Mill Point building due to the location of her room and the impact the on-going work has had on the amount of natural light she receives,” they told us.
“This offer has not been taken up, although it remains open to her.” But Molly’s already in new halls, run by a different company. She didn’t take Unite’s offer.
A spokesperson for Royal Holloway, University of London, told The Tab that they are actively ensuring that maintenance and mental health support are kept to a high standard. “With regards to all our Halls, we aim to respond as quickly as possible to any issues that arise,” they said. “During the Covid-19 pandemic, our maintenance teams are following the required safety and social distancing protocols and continue to carry out critical repairs across our student accommodation. All other issues are recorded for action at a time when we can safely access the property.
“Royal Holloway has a number of teams available to offer help and support to our student community. Our Hall Life team is available for students living in halls and Residential Services actively monitor and respond to any issues students raise. We are committed to providing excellent mental health services for all of our students and our Student Advisory and Wellbeing teams are on hand to advise and support students with all aspects of their health and emotional and mental wellbeing.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58.
The Tab’s You Matter campaign is putting a focus on student mental health right now. If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]