NUS warns of rise in student anxiety due to university COVID restrictions

For World Mental Health Day, the NUS highlights the struggle of thousands of students and the support that's available

The National Union Of Students has warned that many universities’ coronavirus restrictions of those living in campus accommodation are having a severe impact of students’ mental health.

Recent weeks have seen reports of thousands of UK university students forced into isolation and quarantine due to a rise in COVID cases across the UK. It has been confirmed 10,000 students across the UK have been infected, with four universities accounting for half of the cases. This week it emerged that Nottingham University was among one of the worst hit, with 425 students testing positive for COVID-19. Manchester, Northumbria and Newcastle are also among the worst hit.

Many students have protested against their conditions, as well as universities welcoming them back in the first place and continuing to take full-price fees.

Vice President for Higher Education at NUS Hillary Gyebi-Ababio spoke to NME about the “really horrific and harrowing conditions that we’re seeing at universities right across the country” – including not being allowed out to shop, so being charged £17.52 per day for food in some instances.

“Right now, I really want to know what’s going through the minds of some of the people running these universities,” she told NME. “Some of the measures they’re taking are ridiculous. It’s getting harder for me to give these universities grace when you’re seeing students charged so much for food. That isn’t in any student’s budget.

“Now they’re worrying about if they’ll be able to pay rent, get their own food and get the support that they need.”

As for other strict conditions, she continued: “We’ve heard reports of private security firms touring accommodation with security dogs and fire doors being locked. I really do get the acute sense that students are feeling really anxious right now.”

Signs made by students are displayed in a window of their locked down accommodation building on October 07, 2020 in Manchester, England. Manchester now has the highest coronavirus (Covid-19) infection rate in the country, with nearly 600 cases per 100,000 people. Manchester University and Manchester Metropolitan University have also now moved all lectures online with many students quarantined in their residential halls. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Signs made by students are displayed in a window of their locked down accommodation building on October 07, 2020 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Speaking at an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students meeting with MPs earlier this week, Hillary warned of the dangers of students being ignored again. As well as demanding more government support, Hillary argued that institutions needed to show the “compassion and care that students need right now”.

“Students feeling very vulnerable during a time when they don’t seem to have any control over what’s happening to them,” she told NME. “It’s particularly harrowing to hear it firsthand from students. It’s really heartbreaking.

“One of the students who came to our consultation earlier this week told us that 40 per cent of the calls to their mental health hotline were COVID-related. They were all feeling really anxious about the impact of COVID on them and their campus. In one of our surveys, students were telling us about the extent to which they were struggling and some students are de-prioritising their food shop in order to be able to afford basic necessities. It is scary to think that they are contemplating that right now during a pandemic.”

She added: “When it comes to the situation that we’re in, with being in lockdown around people that you might not know – especially for first years – people might not know what your support needs are. That can be incredibly terrifying for students. We’ve seen it across TikTok and social media that students are not only feeling angry, but they’re worried, confused anxious and want to be able to have the agency to go home and be around their loved ones in a safe way.”

Signs made by students are displayed in a window of their locked down accommodation building on September 28, 2020 in Manchester, England. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Students are encouraged to reach out to their university’s own mental health services, use a local NHS mental health helpline, or access the advice and help provided by charities such as Student Minds or – as well as being there for one another in as safe a way as possible.

“Do reach out for support, whether it’s your university’s mental health services, your family, loved ones or those who are safely around you to help,” said Hillary. “Don’t suffer in silence. It’s important that students speak out, despite this horrible situation. Ensure that you’re looking out for yourselves and those around you. In lockdown, you can’t really go to a loved one’s house if your accommodation is in quarantine.

“Please find ways of being there for each other in a way that respects boundaries but still tends to each other’s needs. That’s all we can say until we see the government and universities start to pull through for students in the way that we’ve been calling for them to.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “Universities are prepared for a local outbreak and we have worked with them to help draw up plans for measures in the event of positive cases on campus, or a rise in cases locally.

“We recognise this has been a really challenging time for students, and will continue to do everything we can to help universities, and will continue to do everything we can to help universities ensure they have all the additional help and practical support they need.”

 For help and advice on mental health: