University students are struggling with loneliness and anxiety due to campus lockdowns, with the risk that their mental health will deteriorate further unless urgent action is taken, counsellors and charities are warning.
Nightline, a phone line run by 2,951 student volunteers that reaches 1.6 million of their peers, has reported higher demand than usual for this time of year as self-isolation takes its toll on students’ mental health. “We normally see significant numbers of calls dealing with loneliness, and this year that number is higher,” says Brendan Mahon, a Nightline trustee.
“Anecdotally,” Mahon adds, “we’ve heard from a number of Nightlines that they have been getting an increased number of calls where people talk about suicide.”
Suicide prevention charity Papyrus is urging universities to prioritise supporting students who may be at risk. It has published new guidance that includes a checklist of measures for institutions to follow, such as training staff in suicide awareness and intervention, and regular check-ins with students who might be in difficulty.
Concerns were heightened after it was reported that Finn Kitson, 19, was found dead at Manchester University’s Fallowfield campus on 8 October. His father, the Cambridge economist Michael Kitson, responded to a since-deleted tweet that said the death was unrelated to coronavirus restrictions, writing: “If you lockdown young people because of Covid-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety.”
The National Union of Students (NUS) has called for universities to invest more in their mental health services and ensure that new students are aware of the available support. It also asks that the government spend more on improving NHS services, specifically those which are targeted at people who are black, Asian and minority ethnic; disabled; or LGBT.
“There was a mental health crisis across universities prior to the pandemic,” says Sara Khan, vice president for liberation and equality at the NUS. “The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues.
“There are many students who have left home for the first time and are living with strangers that are now exposed to accommodation lockdowns and long periods of self-isolation. The mental health impact of such upheaval cannot be ignored,” she says.
The situation is especially demanding for students in halls, who have been grouped into households with people they have never met before. Rosie Mason, a first-year student, says not clicking with her flatmates caused her to drop out of Sussex University and transfer to Birmingham City University.
“I was just sat in my room all day,” she says. “I struggled that week, mentally. I have a history of anxiety and had an eating disorder which got a lot worse during the time I was there. I didn’t want to go into the kitchen and see these people because I just felt anxious.”
At Nottingham University, where hundreds of students are self-isolating due to coronavirus, there has been a “marked increase” in calls relating to loneliness and Covid-related issues, says Beth Scahill, a service coordinator and third-year student. “People are using our phone lines more than we’ve seen in the past. They want to hear other people’s voices and have that closer connection.”
During the nationwide lockdown, from March through April 2020, Nightlines across the UK and Ireland found that nearly half (48%) of calls wanted to discuss mental health related issues, including anxiety, which came up in 24% of calls. One in six calls also dealt with loneliness; triple the rate the service usually receives.
While research suggests that mental health has been deteriorating across the population during the Covid outbreak, young people are among the most vulnerable, according to a study led by the University of Glasgow.
Dominique Thompson, a student mental health specialist and GP, says that reducing student anxiety should be central to every pastoral, social and academic activity that universities do now. She suggests as a motto: “What will make this less stressful? Provide certainty and be transparent about what we can do and what we don’t know, and update students as we go along.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org