The Covid uni crisis – will it be the greatest student hangover of all time?

One day in December last year, Calvin Oliver went out to the supermarket. When he saw the huge queue to get in, he turned back.

However, in the five-minute walk home, the university student started to experience intense pain.

‘Like pins inserting themselves into my skin,’ he describes. ‘It was intense. As it spread across my entire body I realised my mental anxiety had manifested itself in a new form of physically painful sensations. 

‘It made it difficult to go outside again.’

Calvin, now 21, is accustomed to mental health problems. The ambitious, intelligent and gregarious student has experienced self harm, anxiety, depression and a suicide attempt. He admits he spent much of his first year drinking; spending too much money on alcohol, which was a cause for concern as his financial situation was ‘precarious’.

However, having graduated from the University of Sussex in August this year, Cavlin is in a better place now, saying that he feels optimistic about the future. 

Even so, his experience of going through the Covid crisis while at university took its toll.

As waves of students old and new once again get ready for uni life – some yet to set foot on campus – in a survey carried out by the National Union of Students, more than half have said their mental health deteriorated due to the coronavirus crisis. One in five sought professional help.

Before the pandemic, Calvin admits his wellbeing issues had already made him contemplate dropping out from his philosophy, politics, economy degree.

‘I was distraught. I had no motivation,’ he recalls. ‘I loved the work, reading, lectures and presentations. But I had profound depression – a feeling of complete emptiness. I wanted to end myself.’ 

By spring 2020, things began to look up after Calvin had built a circle of trusted friends and found a better way of managing his finances.

Then Covid hit. Calvin lived in a small apartment with a friend who was diabetic, which meant they both had to shield. 

‘It was a dingy flat that didn’t have proper heating and had a mould problem,’ he remembers. ‘But I need to see people, otherwise I find it really difficult.’

After months of isolation Calvin says he lost all sense of time. Spending days inside the dark and gloomy flat – ‘which cost an arm and a leg’ – he often didn’t know what day it was. He felt lethargic and listless inside, but anxious and pain-ridden on the few occasions he could go out. 

Trying to socialise with his course mates online felt futile.

‘I don’t know how to socially interact with people online,’ explains Calvin. ‘Anxiety made it worse. It just seemed pointless and stupid.’

Even so, he worked hard despite feeling volatile, miserable and exhausted. 

Suffering from mood swings Calvin spent last New Year’s day in tears. Then when restrictions began to lift, and he could finally go out, he began to be dogged by physical pains.

“I went home and stripped naked and scratched myself,’ he says, recalling the day the started on his way home from the supermarket. ‘I took a shower, just to not feel in pain across my entire body. That persisted for a few months – until May. Whenever I went outside I would feel that way. But I knew that as long as I kept my breathing controlled and stayed aware of the pain, I could carry on.’

Calvin’s story echoes that of many young people who have worked hard throughout the crisis. They are telling the pandemic has left them experiencing eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, panic attacks, social anxiety and depression. 

Many of them feel depleted, isolated and worried about the future. 

Therapist Rachel Farhi, who works with Welldoing.Org, has encountered many young people struggling with the loss of existing support systems and the denial of new friends and relationships.

‘Clinically, I have found where people may have had a previous or existing mental health condition – this situation brings them to the fore,’ she explains.

‘A lot of young people think that the university might be able to help them with counselling. But the truth is, even with the best will in the world, a lot of uni counselling services just don’t have the resources to deal with so many young people coming forward.’

Many students have also complained that university has left them high and dry in other ways. 

Larissa Kennedy, NUS President, says that universities lied to students about what they could expect during Covid.

‘We have come into a year with this pandemic compounding an existing student mental health crisis,’ she explains. ‘Laid on top of all of the issues students were already facing, we’ve got something that was so isolating and difficult for students. Students were essentially lied to about what was going to be possible. 

‘They were cattled over to new towns and then locked up for weeks in some cases. I was getting messages from students in November 2020 saying they had not met anyone from their course and they had been there since September.

‘For lots of them this was often the first time living alone,’ Larissa continues. ‘Sometimes they had come from far away in the country, sometimes overseas, and they are totally isolated. We are seeing now over half of students saying Covid has negatively affected their mental health and this is really unsurprising given how badly things were handled.’

Larissa says that if we look at the recommendations from SAGE [The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] it was far earlier on that Government were hearing that it would be advisable that universities move online.

‘So if students were told that truth sooner rather than later, we may not have seen any of the levels of transmission that we encountered between them and the levels of isolation that we did,’ she explains. ‘That could have helped a lot of students to make an informed decision about where they wanted to be.’

Lack of communication was a common problem reported by students, and many suffered from a lack of technological help and equipment. Insufficient financial support continues to blight many undergraduates’ education. 

Antonia Fourie, 23, experienced severe hardship at university – to the point where she was malnourished – and she had to rely on a food bank to make ends meet.

Amazingly, she recently graduated in computer science with forensics and cyber security, but says her challenging degree was made all the more difficult as the pandemic hit her finances.

‘I had a credit card and overdraft and because of all my other outgoings, I found food very tough in the first year,’ she says. 

‘I once went a month or two living off nothing but ramen noodles and hot water. I ate canned food, meatballs and so on, but nothing nutritional or fresh. That took its toll on my physical health, strength and focus. My concentration and energy levels were affected.’

Antonia visited a local food bank around once a month where she received bags of healthy, nutritious food, as well as toiletries and feminine hygiene products.

‘Not only did they give me more than enough food – on my first visit I got six bags – but there was also an outpouring of kindness,’ she remembers. ‘It wasn’t just about making sure I could eat. They made me a cup of tea and sat me down and gave me a support circle when I didn’t know anyone in the city.’

Without the help of Llanedeyrn Centre Food Bank in Cardiff, Antonia says she would have dropped out. 

‘It was so stressful. If I didn’t have that help I wouldn’t have been able to finish my degree. I was so malnourished I wouldn’t have been able to go on. I don’t know what I would have done without them.’

Like many of her peers, Antonia found herself struggling to pay the bills as shop shelves were stripped bare. Without being able to travel to cheaper stores, students were forced to buy expensive loo roll locally, or get fresh meat and veg from the nearest, often high-end, supermarkets. It was a tough time that took its toll on Antonia’s mental health, and one in which she believes the university could have offered more support.

‘I know a few students that could have used that help, ‘she says. ‘They had to move back home because they couldn’t afford to feed themselves.

‘We had no extra support from student finance. A lot of us were trying to get their voices heard because there were a lot of extra bills and travelling that needed to be done. Many were getting in taxis to go to work because they couldn’t go on buses because of Covid.’

Antonia says that before remote learning was introduced, she felt there was a sense that students had to put their degree before their own safety. ‘Because if you didn’t go to lectures, you would fall behind,’ she explains. ‘It was a very tumultuous time. Only this year did the university roll out Covid grants or extra financing. I know a lot of students all over the country are very displeased with how students were treated during lockdowns. It was an absolute shambles.’ 

With one in 10 students turning to food banks during the pandemic, according to the NUS, and one in three said poverty had forced them to cut back on food. In May, the union called for student support grants to help young people through the tricky period.

Meanwhile,according to research from the SaveTheStudent published just this month, 65% of students say that their mental health had suffered because they are worried about money, while 45% say financial stress damages stops them sleeping. 

22-year-old Anna (not her real name), graduated with a degree in history from the University of East Anglia this year, and says the impact of Covid on her studies damaged her mental health.

When the lockdowns hit, she found herself drinking excessively – two bottles of wine or a litre of rum a day sometimes – and her problems with self-harm and bulimia spiralled. Against a background of severe depression and a suicide attempt, Anna found lockdown conditions incredibly difficult to contend with.

‘I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol for most of my degree,’ she admits. ‘University had such a drinking culture and that would spill over from social time to times where I was alone and I just wanted to numb things out. I didn’t want to feel how I was feeling.

‘I started drinking a lot in my room on my own and for the latter half of the first year it got particularly bad. I managed to get a handle on it, but then with Covid it came back with renewed vigour. I would drink spirits or wine, while trying to get my academic work done.

‘It became more of a problem during lockdown. Not only is there the feeling of isolation, but the physical isolation and the sense of not being able to have control over anything or being able to deal with anything. I was just trying to make it as easy as possible to get through this day. I would laugh it off with friends and tried to minimise how serious it was. It was rooted in mental health struggles but I would position it as – “if you can’t get to the party, bring the party here”.’

Away from her close friends, Anna found herself in a tailspin. ‘There was a complete lack of support from the university as a whole,’ she says. ‘But there is a wider issue with the way universities are run. Really, the pandemic was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.’

Anna explains that she feels that universities are now treated like business, something that desperately needs to change – especially in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

‘The emphasis is on a shiny new building or expanding the gym rather than investing in the staff in supporting educational aspects and making sure the education and wellbeing of staff and students are supported,’ she explains. ‘Modelling universities on businesses does not work. Of course a pandemic is going to be disruptive but that was really exacerbated by the model that we have.’

‘Universities have their own wellbeing provisions but there is more that can be done,’ adds Anna. ‘They will never be enough to mitigate against the fact that NHS provision is really underfunded. No matter how many wellbeing schemes, mindfulness sessions or therapy dogs a university has, that doesn’t in any way begin to make up for a really toxic culture in universities.’

What the universities say…

A spokesman says the University of Sussex says they are now determined to return to as much face-to-face learning as possible: ‘The past 18 months has been exceptionally challenging, especially for anybody already living with a mental health condition. Support – academic, financial and emotional – is available for any student who needs it, and we strongly encourage students to come forward at the earliest opportunity.’

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Cardiff University said a package of support is available to students, including bursaries, rent rebates and £350 grants to those struggling financially. She added: ‘Our professional student support services have continued to help students remotely during the Covid crisis. Other initiatives included the student check-in service, where students remaining in Cardiff during the initial weeks of the pandemic were contacted regularly by a member of staff. We have offered telephone counselling and access to moderated online places to talk. All our first-year students are offered a trained peer mentor to help them adjust to university life.’

Universities UK say: ‘Universities are reaching out to make sure that all students are aware of the broad range of services available at their university and via the NHS, as well as encouraging those with mental health difficulties to access the right support.

‘Recognising the challenges many students have faced, universities are also stepping up efforts to support new students joining university this autumn, putting lots of additional support in place to help them adapt to university life and their studies.

‘There are significant increases in demand for university-funded support services, and UUK has called on government to support student mental health with targeted funding and by commissioning student-facing NHS services, as set out in the NHS Long Term Plan.’

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