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Cabin-Fever: COVID-19 & Student Mental Health

Is the general acknowledgment of students’ struggles with mental health in the age of coronavirus just lip-service?

Across the UK, as restrictions on socialization have begun to become tighter again, there is a harsh reality that these restrictions are fundamentally unfair to younger people in the way they affect our jobs, schooling, and mental health. The purpose of this article is not to say that the restrictions are not the right course of action. With a grandparent in their 90s, I personally support the goal of these measures.

However, there is a significant toll on students due to these measures, with 11% more students feeling hopeless in June than the national average according to mentalhealth.org.uk. The added strain on students can be partially attributed to the intersection of financial insecurity generally felt by students, increased screen time which has been shown to have a negative effect on mental health, loneliness, and the lack of security for the future (mentalhealth.org.uk). These feelings of unfairness are of course compounded by the general scapegoating by the government and universities of students in the face of partially inevitable rising cases. This is characterized in the manner in which unis across the UK notably forced students into a two-week quarantine in halls in September, locking them in like prisoners for two weeks.

The subtext to these actions not only being a lack of trust in students but the manner of the quarantines themselves as protection for the rest of the population serving to place students in a position of guilt for not doing what unis said. When the university asks students to stay in to keep numbers down, the disparity of the situation is only exacerbated when on your way back from the store you pass a pub filled with the groups of the elderly population, you’re staying in all weekend to protect.

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So, what is the university doing to try and combat student’s poor mental health? Looking not just at St Andrews, but universities like Manchester, Durham, Oxford, and Cambridge, what are universities doing, does it seem helpful in addressing at least some of the causes of student hopelessness? Generally, these unis do have pages devoted to mental health during COVID-19, with varying levels of detail, or engagement. St Andrews itself has a long page with suggestions of activities that you can do as a household, like a bakeoff competition, or pier walks, and how to stay upbeat while studying at home, etc. While some unis only have a page directing students to student services, most pages have some advice about how to lessen the stress of working online, or cope with loneliness by chatting online with friends.

Links to pages like studentmindsblog.co.uk or pages like StudentSpace that are attempting to give greater advice to students are present on some of the more detailed pages. Of course, there is also the NHS page with general advice for students facing mental health struggles, especially in the face of coronavirus. All in all, for those aware and accepting of struggles they are facing, there is ample space to seek help if they are willing.

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The question of course is then the effectiveness of these efforts in addressing general struggles that students as an aggregate are facing; financial insecurity, uncertainty about the future, loneliness, and of course the sense of hopelessness in the face of feelings of unequal treatment and impact by COVID-19 restrictions. University advice is generally directed at people feeling down about being online, advice like how to work-out in your room if you are sitting at your desk all day or go on a walk. These generally address the short-term impacts of COVID-19 – they are quick fixes for lonesomeness or attempts to take your mind off of the insecurity of your situation. As the year goes on, universities and the government should turn their attention to the potential long-term effects of COVID-19 that would address some of the root causes of student concerns. The issues of insecurity for graduates and the financial insecurity of students in general, many of whom have lost jobs should be addressed more stoutly by the government.

The unfairness of the situation on students should at least be properly acknowledged by institutions through the end of student scapegoating. Measures to address student concerns, or give them some sense of listening by large institutions, understanding the issues that are facing them in the long-term, would create a stronger sense of support than perhaps the short-term fixes presented to students on the whole.

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