The Unspoken Mental Health Pandemic Affecting Students
Ryan Sprules writes about the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ mental health.
The mental toll of the student struggle against Coronavirus has yet to receive such its share of attention; This is not meant to be some sort of competition of which one poses the greater risk, instead focusing on less a symptom but more a side effect that disproportionally affects students who might be able in some cases to fend off the virus itself. There are suggestions that we are sitting atop a ticking mental health time bomb as already overburdened services cannot prepare for themselves for such an increase. Waiting times will rise and as a result, cases will continue to deteriorate, increasing the pressure on mental health services further.
In August, there were already warnings of renewed “anxiety, isolation and loneliness” from the National Union of Students. The decline of student mental health has already been on an increasing trend, now skyrocketed by the pandemic. Possible symptoms of future conditions and changes in behaviour may now be harder to identify by close friends or colleagues at earlier stages in the absence of regular face-to-face conversation. Just this academic year alone, a student has passed away every week. This highlights the absolute urgency of this situation that needs to be addressed.
We can all at one point identify with the feelings of isolation that take hold whether it was the first lockdown or the second one. Vast numbers of students have felt trapped as many felt relief at seeing friends or collaborated with each other for guidance. There is a plausible link between this and the various misguided rule breaks that have since been reported or witnessed by various people in Exeter. It is, if anything, a last desperate resort for some form of contact despite the clear consequences of doing so, especially concerning freshers that have felt robbed of an experience.
Suffice to say, the mental strain of undergoing such an ordeal can make anyone feel lost and afraid. Various students had already made the tough decision to return back home way before talks of a second lockdown occurred which stemmed from reasons including but not limited to both concern of catching the virus itself and other social implications. Those with pre-existing medical conditions concerning mental health like anxiety or depression have been left in such a precarious situation that these decisions need to be made for the safety of their physical and mental health.
This is certainly not the University experience many were expecting nor hoping for. That being said mental health has been an underrepresented issue for a while and is not just a problem now in connection with coronavirus. To reiterate, from last year cases already reached an “alarmingly high” rate as 87.7 per cent of nationwide students recorded feelings of severe anxiety according to a poll. Students have been instilled a disproportionate amount of guilt from media coverage in connections to the second wave. All eyes are on students for the so-called Christmas Exodus, only to provide additional anxiety in an already sensitive state. Instead of instilling guilt, there needs to be wider support and understanding.
Looking back to November, thoughts turned to conversations about men’s mental health with Movember charity efforts well under way (fundraising ended on 8 December!) and International Men’s Day on 19 November. 3 out of 4 suicides that occur within the UK are by men. We need to keep this conversation going if we want to tackle this issue. We may often feel unable to express ourselves fully as feelings of shame and embarrassment can take hold, either from ourselves or others. In itself, preventing us from being able to aid ourselves under a misguided view of being tough. It is now more important than ever for us to talk and feel comfortable doing so. To not feel isolated in these times of isolation.
I interviewed those within my current Movember group on their own methods of upholding their mental wellbeing. Jude recommends: “I go outside for about 20 mins or so. Just to go outside and appreciate the beauty around us and to take deep breaths. I also listen to motivational videos”
Alex too reiterates the importance of going outside: “Sport is a lifesaver, like recently I got back into running (doing 100km for Movember). Fresh air is something that really helps.”
“I’d also say surrounding yourself around positive people is important, just gotta spread the good vibes.”
The core idea being to make the most out of the day, to be active and to maintain a physical wellbeing that goes hand in hand with your mental wellbeing. However, one should not feel stressed in trying to keep a constantly productive baseline everyday considering the circumstances.
Some of the options available to you as a student revolve around the core basis of speaking to those who are willing to listening. Wellbeing Services in Exeter have confirmed that they are continuing to run during the period of the second lockdown, remotely and in person. It can be an anxious process to reach out and even book the telephone referral appointment but it’s wholly worth it in order to build fundamental support networks. Nightline and the Samaritans are also there to talk to in your time of need.
Talking to one another is crucial, and while the current restrictions have made that aspect tougher, to spend time calling someone or a video chat at the very least can make all the difference. I’m not suggesting that a single chat or one walk in the park will solve perhaps deep-seated feelings, and to do so would insult those who have gone through so much. These factors take a lot of time and support to work through, they are simply the small steps to begin with in order to receive that help and build those support networks.
Stay safe everyone.