University is often challenging enough without the inevitability of catching a debilitating virus, having to do lectures in the discomfort of your student house that has very poor Wi-Fi and constantly worrying about whether you’ll even get a job once you’ve finished struggling over this online degree that you’ve paid 9.5k for. We might as well be doing an online degree at the Open University, right?

But I digress. The University Student Mental Health Survey in 2018 found that among 37,500 students from around 140 UK universities, one in five have a current mental health diagnosis whilst 33% of students said they often or always felt lonely. 

And that was without a global pandemic. 

In an ideal world, everyone would have amazing Wi-Fi and a completely quiet environment to work in. Online learning would run so smoothly that we wouldn’t even notice we’re not on campus! However, this is obviously not the case as we’re far from an ideal world right now and our online learning experience is taking a negative toll on student mental health.

University can sometimes be an incredibly lonely place. I found that in my second semester of first year I really welcomed being able to go into campus with my coursemates as an escape from my extremely dirty Endcliffe kitchen and tiny room that was identical to everyone else’s.

This year, that kind of escape is not so accessible. The turn to online learning was the exception for our much anticipated return to university after a long (and for some, very painful for their mental health) six months in our family homes.

Yet, it is online learning that is turning out to be so detrimental to student mental health. Spending all day in our rooms in front of a computer screen and with very limited access to campus study spaces is just not working. It’s university, but without the fun bits and it’s not what any of us signed up for.  

Online learning perpetuates isolation. Isolation from friends, support systems and the general sense of community and belonging that is felt at university. Online learning creates distance, not only between peers, but between students and lecturers. Blackboard Collaborates black screens and muted mics definitely don’t help us to make friends or feel comfortable in online sessions.

As a second year student who had the end of my first year cut short due to March’s lockdown, I haven’t met many of the tutors in my department and, for some of my online tutorials, I’ve never even met the lecturers in person. It’s very clear that students are finding this online connection to be very disconnected.

From confusion over how the academic year would run to a two week suspension of the minimal face-to-face teaching we had scheduled and then another lockdown, it’s just as much the uncertainty surrounding online learning as it is the actual thing that is causing a decline in student mental health. 

Students are not stupid, despite what the government and much of the general public may think. We understand that a certain virus is making things very tricky for everyone at the moment, but I also think that in a time when students are being targeted more than ever, there should be more support.

According to mental health charity Mind, 74% of 18-24 year olds reported that their mental health had gotten worse in lockdown. This was when we were at home with families, not cooped up in student houses or accommodation. 74% is already way too high, but how much higher will it climb?

At the start of the year when everything still seemed relatively normal, SAMHS (the first port of call regarding counsel for the University) had a two week wait for just an initial assessment. 

Many students have chosen the option to move home permanently in order to solve this epidemic of loneliness. But not everyone is able to do this. Going to our family homes does not instantly cure mental illness. As university students we are part of a community that I hoped would have had more support during this incredibly confusing, de-motivating and depressing time.

This isn’t to say suspend all online learning immediately because I understand that this is not a situation in which everything can go back to normal straight-away. However, online learning is not sustainable in the long run either and students are struggling with their mental health more than ever. There needs to be an intervention in the way of support for students in these unprecedented times, or otherwise Covid-19 won’t be the only pandemic we face.

Image: Indie Labbe-Jones


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