Starting university is a massive step at the best of times – let alone during a pandemic.
Coronavirus restrictions may mean you can’t pop home for the weekend to get away from that annoying housemate (you know, the one who always leaves the fridge door open in your student kitchen).
And your plans to make loads of friends during a fun-filled freshers’ week may have fallen a bit flat, as many events are online only.
Meanwhile, with many of your lectures and seminars being done remotely, getting your work done requires heaps of self-motivation and energy.
Bearing all of this in mind, we’ve asked some experts for their tips on how students can look after their mental wellbeing this year.
Many of us are fairly weary of Zoom quizzes as a locked-down format of socialising, but it’s worth gritting your teeth and showing up, says Lily Margaroli, a co-ordinator of Exeter University’s student helpline, Nightline.
Lily, a 21-year-old Politics, Philosophy and Economics student, points out that while meeting people on group video calls can feel “cringe and awkward”, it’s a starting point for you to meet people who you can then strike up friendships with in a more personable setting.
If you feel you might have clicked with even one person on the Zoom session, why not message them for a socially-distanced walk or coffee, she suggests.
“It’s about having those connections that maybe can lead to something in person further down the line.”
Students, like everyone else in the UK, cannot meet up in large groups due to coronavirus restrictions. In Scotland, students have specifically been told they cannot socialise outside of their household. It’s therefore higher stakes than ever that you get on with the (often randomly-generated) group of people with whom you’re bunged in a flat.
If you don’t immediately connect with one or two people who are sharing your living space, it can become all too easy to cut yourself off from everyone, says clinical psychologist Dr Anna Colton.
But rather than retreating to your room, Dr Anna says it’s about being “open-minded enough” to put yourself in situations that don’t always feel comfortable, and to persevere with them, given that it’s now harder to go out and find friends elsewhere.
“If you take yourself out of the equation, you don’t get the opportunity to reassess that relationship at a later date. Just double-check you’re sure you really don’t like someone before you write them off.”
Dr Fran Longstaff, Head of Psychology at Fika, a student mental fitness platform, says it can be useful to “take some time to think about what you want from friendships”, and consider the “characteristics you value in others”.
She adds: “Ask yourself – what is it you need from your friends to help you be the best version of yourself?”
Dr Fran says not to worry if it takes trial and error to find friends who share your values: “Research shows it takes 50 hours to move from acquaintance to even casual friend – so be patient with yourself.”
Many universities across the UK have relied on making lectures and seminars available online, instead of asking their students to gather on campus. Zainab Ali, 19, who is studying psychology at Queen Mary University of London, has noticed many of her course-mates are reluctant to show their faces on video calls – and it’s hampering her chances to get to know people.
“It would be so different if it was face-to-face, but online everyone is really shy and anxious,” she says. “I think they’re just uncomfortable because they don’t know how other people are – they might judge.”
The webcam reluctance adds to the difficulty Zainab is having forming friendships with any of the 187 other people on her course. As Zainab is living with her grandparents in east London, instead of on campus, the only contact she’s had with course-mates outside of a learning environment is on a Whatsapp group.
Back down in Exeter, Lily, who is in her third year, says she is “happy to sit in my dressing gown and go to a seminar” – but she accepts that many freshers will still be finding that level of self-confidence.
“As a fresher it’s a really different situation but if you can just put that camera on, knowing everyone else is in the same situation and feeling a bit self-conscious, you’ll feel slightly more connected.”
Whether you’re doing all your socialising online, like Zainab, or able to enjoy small face-to-face gatherings (at a social distance), it’s important to take time for yourself and not worry about FOMO – the fear of missing out – says Dr Anna.
She suggests activities – such as exercising, reading a book, or even just painting your nails – can be helpful ways to “decompress”, especially “when life is as emotional and turbulent as it is now”.
Try not to think about FOMO during that time, she says.
“I know young people might worry that if they’re not there with people, that bonds will be formed and they’ll be left out. But it’s not going to be a disaster, you can’t be there 24/7.”
Lily points out that while the government’s simple “stay at home” mandate earlier in the pandemic was easy enough to understand, there are now various localised regulations across the UK – as well as universities setting out their own individual rules. This could make students feel bombarded.
“You might have a ton of emails and only one or two of them are really important, but they’re mixed in with everything else. It’s really difficult to say don’t check social media or your emails, but at the same time you don’t want to get too obsessed with checking them.”
Lily and her housemates have found a way to avoid the information overload. They take it in turns to read emails from university officials that they’ve all received, and then relay the important bits to each other. If one person feels more anxious about the coronavirus situation on any given day, they can rest assured they can switch off their phone without missing any really important updates.
Mark Mon-Williams, a professor of psychology at the University of Leeds and the Bradford Institute of Health Research, makes the point that it’s unrealistic to expect young people not to socialise, and that this is a time when it’s important for their personal development to meet new people.
“I think we really should think seriously about how we can support young people to have those social interactions, while maintaining the overall safety of the population,” he says.
Lily adds that having something social in your diary at least once every couple of days – be it a socially-distanced walk, coffee, or film – is a great way to maintain a positive outlook.
“It is normal to feel worried, stressed, anxious and discombobulated” as we are all living through the “most extraordinary times”, says Dr Anna.
She explains: “There’s no-one unaffected by Covid-19. We’re all in the same storm but we’re in very different boats. Some of us dealing with this storm are in luxury super-yachts, and some of us are in tin boats with holes in the bottom.”
It is important to remember that your experience is valid, Dr Anna says, adding that – if you’re feeling low – “talk about it early” rather than waiting for it to build up, because “mental health difficulties become mental health problems when they’re sat on and they grow”.
Lily says that while she knows it takes a lot of courage to send a text to let a housemate know you’re struggling, chances are they’ll be relieved and will tell you they’re finding things hard too.
Meanwhile, Mark Fudge, chairman of the Universities and Colleges division of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, encourages students to access the university student services, many of which are offering remote and online support.
He adds: “Universities have been planning and planning throughout the summer to make sure that this is as good as an experience as it possibly can be.”
If you feel overwhelmed or anxious, help is available. Student Minds has set up Student Space to offer support, online and over the phone.
As a student, managing money can be stressful at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic, when part-time jobs can be harder to find.
Mark Fudge says: “Students are the gig-economy workforce – they are often the waiters, the bar staff, the baristas, in most cities. Many have lost jobs or are struggling to get employment because the hospitality and retail jobs just aren’t there.”
His message to students in this situation? “It’s not a rejection of your skills, your abilities, or your personality, it is a financial situation that is very difficult at the moment. Just know that this is temporary and it will hopefully get better.”
He also encourages anyone struggling financially to contact their university. Most have money and welfare teams, he explains, who “can help with hardship loans if things get really desperate, or with budgeting advice and tips”.
Dr Fran says problem-solving is a great way of managing and reducing stress, like financial worries.
She suggests mapping out your monthly budget, whilst factoring in some added “leeway” for the “best and worst-case scenarios” can help you stay on top of financial worries. She says things like meal-planning, sticking to a planned weekly shop and keeping track of how many nights you go out in the week can also help.
Whilst A-levels – your ticket into university – looked very different this year due to exam cancellations and then the U-turn over predicted grades, you still deserve your place, says Dr Anna.
“There’s been quite a lot of invalidation of results”, she says. “Students earned their grades through a two-year period of hard work. Yes, they didn’t have the normal way of having that assessed, and that’s a bummer, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t work hard. They earned their places.”
She says it’s important students know and believe that.
If you or someone you know are feeling emotionally distressed, these organisations offer advice and support. In addition, you can call the Samaritans free on 116 123 (UK and Ireland). Mind also has a confidential telephone helpline on 0300 123 339 (Monday-Friday, 0900-1800). StudentSpace has lots of useful resources on mental health at university, and you can find out if your university has a Nightline here.
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