We asked a mental health expert how to deal with not being allowed back to uni this term

From how to deal with inadequate support from university staff, to thinking about whether you should intermit


CN: Discussion of mental health concerns 

Gareth Hughes is a psychotherapist and clinical lead for Student Minds UK. He is one of many experts on the Student Minds team who have been trying to support students with their mental wellbeing during this most recent lockdown.

As we know, the government has urged students to stay at home and away from uni until at least mid-February, and has also said that students requiring additional support, including mental health support, can be allowed to return to campus.

While the November lockdown made many students concerned about their mental wellbeing living in university accommodation, this new lockdown has meant that students are struggling with mental health whilst stuck at home.

Gareth Hughes, clinical lead at Student Minds UK (Credit: Student Minds)

We spoke to Gareth to get his opinion about the options that are available to students in these circumstances. We asked him what to do if you’ve been told by your university that you can’t come back to your accommodation, how to manage studying from home, and where to seek external help if the support provided by your university is inadequate. Here’s what he had to say:

What can I do if I’ve been told not to return to university, but I’m still worried about my mental health?

Although the government has stated that students in circumstances where they have inadequate study facilities or mental health concerns can return to university, there have been a handful of incidents where students have been prevented from returning on these grounds by their universities.

At Bristol, a student who tried to return to accommodation for mental health reasons was turned away by members of staff because they were not a medical student. The university has since apologised for “unnecessary distress” caused to them. An NUS spokesperson has since said that refusing to allow students to return to halls is “likely illegal and probably constitutes harassment.”

At Cambridge, the collegiate system has meant that students in different colleges have received varying responses from pastoral staff. Some have allegedly been told that their college is “deciding who can come back by ranking out claims and only those with the ‘strongest claims’ can come back”, rather than allowing all students with serious mental health concerns to return.

For anyone who feels like an individual staff member isn’t hearing you, Gareth recommends turning to your central university student services department. “Ask for adjustments to your support plan to make it clear that you need to move in order to protect your mental health because your mental health has deteriorated”, Gareth told The Tab. 

There are of course instances where students no longer feel they can trust their university because of a bad experience with a member of staff after voicing their mental health concerns. At Cambridge, an email from a tutor to a student went viral after the tutor suggested to the student that he only wanted to return to college because there must have been a “mega group chat where [freshers were] winding each other up”, despite the student in question having a diagnosed mental health condition which necessitated his return.

man covering face with both hands while sitting on bench

(Credit: Christian Erfurt via Unsplash)

Gareth says: “If you’re not happy with the responses that you’re getting or are getting inappropriate responses from members of staff, raise that concern with them if you feel like you’re able to raise it. Let them know the impact it’s had on you so they are aware of it and can repair the relationship.

“If you don’t feel able to do that – and that’s perfectly legitimate if you don’t – or you do that and don’t get the response you were hoping for, then it’s okay to go ahead and raise that within the rest of the university. Most people working in universities do care and want to do the best they possibly can for students. Universities have thousands of staff, so you’re going to get one or two individuals within that who just don’t get it in the same way, but that then needs to be addressed. You raising it will help the university to be able to pick that up and address it.”

Of course, there will always be situations where a student struggling with mental health is unable to return to university despite wanting to. Gareth says the most important thing to focus on then is to work on an individual plan for you. “How can you make the best of the situation that you are in?”, Gareth said. “Your mental health is really, really important, and you shouldn’t be made to feel that you need to sacrifice that for your academic performance. So it’s about working with your support team to put together a plan that is individualised to your experiences, plans and circumstances.

“It’s also about accepting the reality of the situation, that it is crap, but to work with that and make things as good for yourself as you possibly can.” 

university mental health

(Credit: Student Space)

How much support can I expect my university to give me this term?

Wherever you are this term, it’s important to know that you can and should expect the same level of support from your university at this time. Gareth said: “In most cases, there is very similar support being provided by universities but it’s just been moved online – meeting with specialist mentors, student services teams, counselling teams things like that. The main thing to know is students can expect similar levels of support.”

Some students may be at universities where they feel the level of mental health support being provided is inadequate. Students at Manchester recently told The Tab how difficult it was to get a counselling appointment, and Exeter is the only university to have a reduced number of mental health support staff this academic year in comparison to last year. In these situations, external help is available.

Student Space has a number of advice columns on their website, as well as listening and email services. Gareth mentions that these services are “here specifically to try and fill this gap” in university resources, and are all free to use. More information on accessing these services is at the end of this article.

(Credit: Insta_Photos/Shutterstock)

I’ve never sought mental health support in the past, but I’m now struggling more than ever

If you’re someone who’s never struggled with mental health up until this point and are unsure what to, Gareth first wants you to feel assured that it’s completely normal to be struggling more than usual at this time. “The pandemic is having a negative impact on us all”, he said. “Most of us will go through periods when our mood feels down, when we feel less motivated and maybe a bit more anxious. It’s okay that we feel like that. It’s a normal response to a really abnormal situation.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have problems with your health or that you’re now mentally ill, it just means that you’re having a normal response to this situation.”

First of all, Gareth recommends that you “devote some time to a bit of self-care and think about what you and what other people can do to help you.”

The next step would be thinking about seeking professional help. If you’re unsure about when the appropriate time to start considering this is, Gareth says potential signs to look out for are “if it feels like the level of stress and emotions you’re feeling go beyond what you can manage for yourself, if you become worried about yourself or you start to feel like you don’t have much hope. If people around you are raising concerns and saying they’re worried about you, that’s often a potential sign that you should seek professional support as well.” 

To begin to seek this support, Gareth recommends first going to your university, but if that doesn’t work out for any reason, accessing the support available through Student Space at the bottom of this article.

university mental health

(Credit: Student Space)

I’m thinking about intermitting or withdrawing from university

With the difficulties that the past year has brought, some students have started to think about intermitting, and even withdrawing from university. In some cases, students have even experienced members of staff suggesting they should intermit because of mental health concerns.

Gareth says that the decision to take time away from university “really depends on the individual circumstance.” He recommends you “have a conversation with your university so you really understand the decision you’re making in terms of finances and what you’re committing to.”

Most importantly, he says that it should ultimately feel like a positive decision. “If you do decide to take a year out or to step out of university completely, try and make it a positive decision”, Gareth told The Tab. “Don’t just think about what you’re stepping out of but what you’re going to step in to. Think about what you’re going to do next so that whatever you do it feels positive to you and not like a negative withdrawal.”

He also says that it’s important to give equal consideration to “the possibility that once you’ve made some adjustments to your support plan, that it will be okay and you can get through the rest of the year.” What seems impossible now “is not going to last forever”, so the decision to take time out should be made with consideration of your long term situation.

I was allowed back to university, but I hate it here and want to go home

Understandably, some students who return to university this term might find they are struggling more now than they were at home. At the same time, there are students who’ve been stuck at uni since the Christmas holidays and just really want to go home to their families.

Gareth says it’s important to remember that you do have the right to move according to government guidelines. Although the government has largely told students to stay where they are, “if [your situation] is really having a very significant impact on your mental health and wellbeing, there are allowances”. 

Gareth said: “So wherever you are, whether that’s home or university, if it’s having a significant impact on your mental health, you are allowed to move to a place that’s safe for you. And that is built into the regulations. But, of course, that’s for a single move because the government wants to prevent people from moving back and forth as much as possible.”

Once again, if anyone has had a disagreement with a specific staff member or collegiate system that is trying to prevent you from leaving university, Gareth recommends going to the central university student services department: “The student services will be involved in the university’s formal response to these situations, so they will be in a better position to try and help the student navigate [the disagreement]  rather than the student dealing with it themselves.”

university mental health

(Credit: Student Space)

Accessing external support

If you’re seeking additional or external support outside of what your university offers, help is available through Student Space. You can access dedicated support services for by phone, text, email and web chat. Phoning in is free and lines are open from 3pm to 12pm, and the text-in service is open 24/7. Emails will be largely be responded to within 24 hours and web chat support is open from 4-11 pm every day.

There’s also a range of information and tools specifically for getting through university during the pandemic. You can also find links to access support at your university directly through their website.

The University of Cambridge were contacted for comment regarding the allegations mentioned in this article. A university spokesperson referred to a statement made by the Vice-Chancellor which states there are permitted exceptions to return to Cambridge which “health and safety” reasons. The full statement can be read, here.

Featured image credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

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