Students have warned of widespread mental health issues amid fears they will be asked to stay at university over the Christmas break.
With the vast majority of lectures moved online, strict rules around socialising and reports of outbreaks in halls across the UK, students are facing months of isolation.
Following the push to physically return to campus, students have also accused their universities and the government of caring more about money than their welfare.
The concerns around the dire situation facing hundreds of thousands of young people – many of them away from home for the first time – came to a head on Thursday, when health secretary Matt Hancock said he could not rule out speculation that students may be asked not to go home over the Christmas break in order to prevent spreading Covid-19 to their families.
The suggestion was met with outrage, with students and parents expressing their frustration that after being urged to return to university – paying a significant sum of rent along the way – thousands of people were able to do little more than log onto lectures from their rooms.
I know there are worse things happening atm but can we all take a moment to appreciate how shite it is to be a student right now? they're paying exorbitant fees but doing all lectures from home, will be no doubt shafted when it comes to jobs and can't even go to the pub. https://t.co/lUcn7MdZUl— Susie Beever (@SusieMayJourno) September 25, 2020
maybe dehumanising is a bit strong a word but forcing students to stay away from their support networks after insisting everyone go back into schools and unis at £9,250 a pop is really sending a clear message to young people that this govt does not care one bit about them https://t.co/cKo6gT8bPw— zoe (@zoyoudidnt) September 24, 2020
Amid complaints about the financial strain and near-zero social opportunities, mental health – already a significant issue amongst the student population – concerns were also shared by those confronted with isolation and uncertainty about their grades.
Are they going to waive accommodation fees and provide extra mental health support to students then?— Maliha (@malihaeza) September 23, 2020
You’re expecting young people who are potentially away from home for the first time to stay away from family during Christmas?
Govt setting up to shift blame on to students. https://t.co/cUhxk21WWx
Sophie Anderton, 20, a second year business management student at the University of Chester, lives in a studio flat in halls. She said her cohort were encouraged to return to the city, but all teaching is currently being run online and with the one communal area in her residence closed, students are struggling to socialise.
“My initial reaction was anger, because I know a lot of us were concerned about coming back to uni in the first place. My mum is in the high risk category so I know I wouldn’t be able to go home as much as I did last year,” she said.
“It’s frustrating to be told that we needed to come back, even though everything so far has been online. It feels like they care more about the money than they do the students, because we’re all here to pay rent but the only thing we can really do is stay in our rooms.”
Even if students were asked to stay at university, Anderton explained, it was unlikely that the entire student population would comply.
“I think most people would go home to be honest, a lot of us are feeling very neglected by the government at the moment. Even when the guidance came out about schools and colleges there was nothing really said about uni students.
“I don’t think anyone is in a position to listen to something so outrageous as being alone at Christmas.”
Anderton continued: “There’s no real reason to be on campus at the moment, with everything online I’m really missing that motivation. I think a lot of people will start staying in their rooms and get quite depressed.
“We’re coming up to the winter months and seasonal depression is obviously a huge thing, especially in young people. If you add on top of that the anxieties around everything going on at the moment, I think it’s going to be such a difficult season for a lot of people.
“I think a lot of students will be hanging on to go home and see their parents and have some familiarity. If that’s taken away from us at Christmas and people are forced to stay at uni then I think a lot of people are going to suffer so greatly.”
Chloë Hyde, a third year English literature student at the University of Birmingham, lives in private accommodation in Selly Oak – an area of the city popular with students who don’t live in halls.
With her exams cancelled at the end of her second year due to Covid-19, her results from her third year of studies could account for almost her entire overall grade – but says concerns about timetables and library have left students confused and worried.
“There is a range of online and off campus teaching which will go ahead, although with Birmingham being a high-risk area, I’m not sure how long we will be able to access in person seminars,” she said.
“For me, this year is very important since it could effectively account for 100% of my degree as my exams were cancelled due to Covid, but I’m worried about the lack of resources for my dissertation.
“As it stands, we have to book slots in the university library in advance, and currently it’s only open until 4pm. With the changing timetables too, it’s hard to be able to plan ahead since nothing seems to be accurate.”
Like Anderton, Hyde emphasised how important the Christmas break was to students, adding that students were unlikely to comply
“I’ve never spent a single Christmas away from my family, and it’s really special knowing I get to have a break and spend time with them at home away from university because by that time of year with assessments I’m usually quite burnt out.
“Being able to see family is so important, and I can’t actually believe the government is considering this at all. Mental health was hardly considered once the government started to ease lockdown, with car showrooms opening before support bubbles were an actual concept, so I really don’t think students would obey the government even if it was made a rule.
“It’s selfish on their behalf, and completely inconsiderate, it’s very easy for Matt Hancock to suggest this as an option when he’s not the one who would be mentally affected by it – meanwhile hundreds of thousands of students would be. This is especially pressing considering we have been told that we should definitely return to university.”
Tom Madders, director of campaigns at YoungMinds described 2020 as a “challenging year for young people”, drawing attention to the isolation and anxiety around social events being cancelled and learning moved online – as well as potentially traumatic events such as bereavement.
He said: “Young people have told us that they have fears about the future, so thinking about Christmas might feel really daunting and bring up a lot of worries. It’s important if you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything that’s happening to limit the time you spend checking the news, finding activities that make you feel calm or talking to someone you trust about how you’re feeling.
“Universities can support student wellbeing by ensuring that there are clear and accessible resources on looking after your mental health... they must also make sure that students are aware of how to access early support for their mental health.
“We also want to see the government commit to making early intervention a priority by investing in a package of emergency support, both now and in long term, so that all young people get support as soon as they need it”.
A spokesperson from Student Minds said conversations around Christmas can be "distressing" for students.
They added: "We question the helpfulness of speculating on students’ ability to return home over the winter holiday period three months ahead of time as this can create unnecessary distress for students and their loved ones.
"The circumstances of the pandemic can shift very quickly, and there are far too many variables to make a reliable prediction as to what things will look like in December.
"There is a risk that the discussion around this topic will needlessly amplify feelings of uncertainty by asking questions which cannot possibly be answered at this moment in time."
The spokesperson added that a policy move forcing students to remain at university could be detrimental to student mental health, preventing them from accessing their own coping strategies such as being with friends or family.
They said: "It is essential that the government and universities have a clear plan for how they are going to support students through these uncertain times and prepare for all eventualities.
"It is crucial to balance the potential harm to student mental health against the very real threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic... Policies and guidelines made about students should always be made in meaningful co-production with students and experts in student mental health, and we expect that any decisions made regarding the winter holiday period meet this standard."
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 UK and Ireland (this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
You can call Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Student Minds has recently launched Student Space, which is dedicated to helping students deal with the Covid crisis. For free resources and confidential support, click here.
You can text the YoungMinds Crisis Messenger for free 24/7 support across the UK if you are experiencing a mental health crisis. If you need urgent help, text YM to 85258.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.