Covid-19 has amplified student loneliness and distress

Charlotte Jones and Fred Cooper argue that Covid-19 seems to be creating the conditions for new extremes of detachment and isolation amongst students.

The autumn term has barely begun, but university students in the UK have already faced a torrent of emotional pressures, upheavals, and uncertainty.

Whilst higher education environments have not always been wholly conducive to student well-being in the past, in late 2020 they are overwhelmingly hostile. Legal restrictions on group size prevent students from widening their networks beyond accommodation and subject groups, and from easily meeting like-minded peers through student union societies, or by finding their communities.

Socialising freely on or off campus now takes careful planning and is not always possible, or even legal, after the evening curfew. Local lockdowns in some regions mean that many students lucky enough to have stable and positive family situations are unable to return home to recharge and reconnect. In recent weeks, students have also been subject to suspicion and shaming, as local and national narratives conflate geographical mobility and “rule-breaking” behaviour with a nation-wide second wave.

Halls of residence, for example, are not a comfortable place for many students – especially only a week or two into their studies. First-year students don’t always find that halls provide the friendships they’re looking for, and sometimes these friendships take a while to develop.

Students in our research into loneliness at the University of Exeter emphasised the discomfort they felt upon realising that undergraduate life was not as easy and content as marketing from prospective universities and other students’ social media had led them to believe. Even under better circumstances, university can be a very lonely and alienating place.

As we start the university year in the midst of a pandemic, attempts to keep students engaged and connected through in-person contact, justified in part through appeals to mental health and “experience”, seem to be creating the conditions for new extremes of detachment and isolation.

Student health and wellbeing

The students for whom Covid-19 represents an existential threat are those already affected by social inequalities at university, and are more likely to have experienced isolation and exclusion in the first place: mature students, students of colour, working class students, disabled students, and those with chronic illnesses.

Covid-19 will also be more likely to lead to serious and enduring distress for these students. As Long Covid is increasingly evidenced and understood, the possibility of serious long-term symptoms represents a further source of anxiety.

Long Covid can affect people of any age, and may lead to a much larger proportion of the student population eventually identifying as disabled or chronically ill (case studies indicate 10–87% of people with Covid-19 present persistent symptoms), requiring a more flexible, sometimes remote, approach to learning in the future.

Student loneliness, and particularly poor mental health, has long been a key agenda for universities. Nevertheless, and despite rising demand, university counselling and support services have been significantly reduced and outsourced, with waiting lists of over four months in many institutions.

The Covid-19 crisis amplifies much of this, but there is also an urgent and ongoing need for student loneliness to be addressed beyond the current situation. In our research with university students, we found that pervasive feelings of loneliness, disconnection and exclusion pre-dated the present crisis.

Following the start of the lockdown in March, some students’ relief to return home, and to escape from campus and university life, illustrated the extreme difficulties they were experiencing prior to the pandemic.

Moving forward

On an immediate basis, crisis resolution has to be proactive and preventative, as well as reactive and restorative. As current contexts and circumstances are diverse and rapidly changing, suggestions for specific and detailed courses of action may not be practical.

Instead, we are making a series of recommendations for work on student loneliness and mental health which are applicable across the sector, and which hold true whatever the institutional, regional, or national picture.

1. Mobilise existing expertise and experience within the university.

This can consist of: academic experts, including ECRs and PhD students who are rarely invited to consult on university strategy; non-academic staff, who have practical expertise in supporting students or promoting belonging and community; and, most importantly, student experts through experience.

Disabled students, students with mental health problems/distress or chronic illnesses, estranged or mature students, and student parents, carers and commuters have a wealth of hard-earned knowledge which should be listened to, learned from, and remunerated.

This will enable a better understanding of how to support members of these groups (and others) in the present crisis, and will also provide shareable insights into ways of working effectively in isolating or remote circumstances.

2. Co-create mutual aid initiatives with students.

Work which invites and empowers students to help one another through the next six months will make a meaningful difference both to the providers and recipients of peer support and solidarity.

This could take the form of a remote listening/solidarity project, a letter exchange, or putting together care packages for students in quarantine. Initiatives need to be led by students and enabled by the university – this will require a clear overture to students for ideas to support, both financially and with staff time.

Students are more than capable of putting together workable, engaging, and innovative projects on loneliness and mental health in a short amount of time, as our work over the past two years has repeatedly shown.

The key investments from institutions are resources, tangible acknowledgement of students’ time and effort (e.g. direct payment for work undertaken, or degree credits), encouragement, and recognition.

This kind of initiative is comparatively low-cost, even on a large scale, and can offer considerable returns.

3. Commit to long-term, transformative work on student loneliness and mental health.

The students in our care right now are the immediate priority. In the longer term, however, we have to recognise that deep structural problems in HE – including endemic and pre-existing health and social inequalities – are a significant factor in how students are affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The necessary work is far longer and deeper than institutional firefighting over the next few terms. Any return to ‘business as usual’ – facilitated, for example, by the development of an effective vaccine – has to account for the lasting impact of the pandemic on current and future students. It also has to learn from their experiences and expertise, as well as from the students who have been marginalised and alienated by higher education environments before the pandemic.

This is difficult work, involving serious institutional and cultural change, and investment in projects that might seem slower than quick fixes which compete for the same resources. It also involves vulnerability, acknowledging structural harms and learning new ways of thinking and working. Some of this work has already begun, but we urgently need a renewed collective effort over the coming months and years.

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