2020 has been an extremely challenging year - the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly put a strain on the mental health and wellbeing of much of the global population. Data from the UKHLS (2020) found that psychological distress peaked in April 2020 – this was 8.1% higher than it was between 2017-2019, and whilst there is evidence of some recovery, this has not yet fallen to pre-pandemic levels. Different groups of people seem to be experiencing the pandemic very differently. Those who live alone are facing social isolation like never before, many are facing job and financial losses and housing insecurity, whilst others are key-workers witnessing distressing situations on a daily basis. Many of us have lost our usual coping mechanisms for dealing with increased stress levels through the limitations on what we are and aren’t allowed to do, and it is more and more difficult to access mental health services with a drop in routine appointments.
Moving to a new city for university can be scary and lonely at the best of times, however, with the halting of face-to-face teaching and social events, many students (especially those living alone) are struggling to adapt, with a lack of support and few opportunities to meet new people. A survey for the National Union of Students (2020) has found that more than half of students surveyed have experienced a decline in mental health since the pandemic began – many suffering from stress, loneliness, anxiety and depression. Feelings of being loved and belonging have also dropped, and under two-thirds feel like they have sufficient social interaction. Despite this, only a fifth of those surveyed had requested mental health support due to a lack of motivation and anger at universities for not doing more than offering support through email communication. Lack of funding from government has not helped, and the NUS are calling for universities, colleges and the NHS to be adequately supported to ensure all students can access the support that they need.
If you’re a student who’s struggling at the moment – remember you’re not alone. Unfortunately, there’s no magic remedy that’s going to fix all of your mental health struggles (we wish there was), but there are several ways in which you can try and improve your situation:
- Make sure to value yourself. Try to not feel bad about not doing anything drastic with your free time. You can still be productive, either at home or outside, for example, by exercising, going for a walk, learning a new hobby, or trying out new recipes. Or, pop on some candles, some music, and just have some relaxation time. This may be your first time living by your own rules – try and make the most of it.
- Take care of your body. Nourish yourself with the right food and don’t slip into ordering takeout every second night of the week when you’re trying to meet tight deadlines (we’ve all been there as students – it’s not good!!). Whilst it may seem like a good idea to crack into the wine with your flat mates every night to self-medicate, this isn’t going to help your sleep quality, or physical/mental wellbeing. Drink plenty of water instead and opt for a chilled movie night.
- Learn how to deal with stress. This is different for everyone, and we know, many normal coping mechanisms have suddenly disappeared, but there will be something else that helps. Why not try meditation, knitting or painting? These should all calm the mind and leave you feeling a bit more relaxed.
- Surround yourself with a good support-network. It’s not been easy with physical interaction with friends and family off the table, but ensure to spend time with flat mates, or catch up with loved ones via video call a couple of times per week. And if you’re going home at Christmas, really make the most of spending quality time with family and, of course, pets! Dogs are the best therapy…
- Finally, don’t be afraid to seek support. So many students and much of general population are suffering right now - it’s ok not to be ok. Seeking help is a sign of strength, and, as daunting as it may seem, opening up to someone if so much better than suffering in silence. Speak to friends and family, reach out to your university advisor, and seek out counselling on campus to ensure you receive the right support services. If you’re worried about explaining how you’ve been feeling, write it down and use this as a prompt in any sessions.
With the vaccine now becoming available to some groups in UK society, we must start to try and think of the positives – we’re gradually on our way to the return of some form of normality. The academic year 2021-2022 will be a whole new experience, and hopefully, this will bring a decrease in the number of students struggling with mental health issues. In the meantime, make sure to support and check in on others around you - even if you yourself aren’t facing difficulties yourself, chances are you know someone who is.