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Student mental health: How young people are coping during the pandemic

“Sometimes you don’t want anyone to know you are struggling, but universities are there to support students.” 

With young people having their university experience disrupted due to the pandemic and facing isolation and uncertainty about the future, student mental health has understandably taken a hit. 

March 4 marks University Mental Health Day, where higher education institutions, student leaders and mental health charities come together to encourage university bosses to make student mental health a priority. 

During an academic year like no other, The Big Issue spoke to three students and asked them how they were coping through the pandemic. 

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Michael-Akolade Ayodeji, studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University

As a young care leaver from an ethnic minority background, it was a big achievement for Michael to secure a place at Oxford University. 

But for many reasons, including the fact he has caring responsibilities for a relative and wasn’t able to work alongside his degree, the second year PPE student had to postpone his studies. 

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“I didn’t feel I could do my top academic work whilst worrying about my family member who I’m caring for during lockdown and a flat I’m supposed to pay for when I have no income coming in,” he said. 

Michael, originally from Birmingham, said his college, University College, had been very supportive when he found himself struggling, even helping him find housing when he became temporarily homeless

“My particular situation is very unique. I have been lucky in the sense that when I became homeless my college stepped in and decided to house me, which I am very grateful for,” he added.

“But can you imagine what being homeless in a pandemic does to you, mental health wise, with the feeling of owing this big institution when you already have a distinct imposter syndrome? It has opened my eyes to the plight of people who are homeless without access to the support that I had.”

He added that other Oxford students hadn’t been so lucky, particularly international students who felt isolated and were struggling with their mental health.

“At Oxford, there’s disparity in how different colleges provide support for student mental health which means that you can have a wide range of support from the same university,” Michael said. 

“For many people, the Oxford experience is quite intense and stressful. 

“What makes it enjoyable is the people you have around you and the events you get to go to.

“In a world where you don’t have any of that with lockdown has really intensified things. People have a boatload of work to do and a lot of pressure to keep up but no reprieve.”

Fritha Heaven, studying History at Manchester University 

Fritha is in her third year and, like many students, admits she is “freaking out” about what to do when she graduates. 

She told The Big Issue young people were currently unable to participate in the extra-curricular activities that employers looked for.

“If people want to travel, we can’t do that. If people want to get work experience or volunteering, we can’t do that either,” she said. 

“There needs to be a better way of highlighting the opportunities that do still remain to ease the process a bit.” 

The 21-year-old has been leading campus campaigns to get her university to provide more support. She described students as feeling largely “forgotten about and ignored”, with bosses not doing enough to provide adequate mental health support. 

“On the whole, universities haven’t been great in responding to Covid,” she added. 

“I think Manchester has been particularly bad, especially in terms of releasing new procedures to do with assessments and exams. It’s just another thing to add on top of already existing stress.” 

Fritha also said the Government hadn’t done enough to support – or even acknowledge – the problems faced by young people

She added: “When you watch the [Government] press conferences, they go through primary school, secondary school, A-Level students, and then they never seem to get to university students. 

“Well, what about us? Why have you forgotten about us?” 

Holly McCormack, studying Digital Journalism at Strathclyde University

Mature student Holly McCormack has had a tough year. 

The 35-year-old, who said she has long-term mental health problems, has been shielding for almost a year due to her asthma. 

She told The Big Issue it had been a struggle but explained she had started a new therapy programme to help her keep going. 

“I think it helps to have a focus and something that you are striving towards,” she said. 

“Because if you lose your routine, you can go a wee bit off-piste.

“The most important thing is to realise when things are hard and pick up the phone and speak to someone that you know and trust.”

Holly said she “absolutely” felt supported enough through her university’s disability service, with lecturers who had been “extremely supportive and understanding”. 

“I’ve never had any judgement thrown my way,” she added. 

“They’ve really supported me over the last couple of years to keep pushing through and get everything finished and done.”

As she hadn’t been on campus for almost a year, Holly said she felt slightly “estranged” from her university, even though she was still there and finishing off her course. 

She emphasised with new students who were not getting to experience university life and said University Mental Health Day was vital as it helped signpost people to support.

“Whether you’re a first-year undergraduate or you’re getting a master’s, the same thing still applies,” she added. 

“It’s always important to keep raising awareness of mental health. 

“As a student, sometimes you might come into that [university] environment and not want anyone to know you are struggling, but universities are there to support students. 

“The worst thing you can do is put extra stress on yourself by not engaging and talking to the university.”

Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or visit www.samaritans.org for useful resources and advice on coping during this difficult time.

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