For many of us, university is not somewhere we go simply to just get our degree and leave without so much as a backward glance. When we inevitably remember our time here, it won’t be that particularly difficult essay for our Philosophy of Science module that we reminisce fondly over. We are here to build connections, meet people, make the friends or even fall in love with the partners we could have for the rest of our lives. University is as much a social experience as it is an educational one, perhaps even more so. So what happens when this experience is crippled by a pandemic that does not care about the preservation of university life as we knew it?
In some ways, it sounds trivial to lament about it. After all, our grandparents lived through a world war, and all we have been asked to do is stay indoors and limit our physical contact with other people. The advice is simple, and reassuring, in some ways; physically, we will be fine, if we isolate indoors. Yet this perspective that sees COVID-19 as solely a health crisis is short-sighted; as we return to universities very different from the ones we knew before, we are also on the cusp of a burgeoning social crisis.
Early research into the effects of the coronavirus shows a growing emergency among young people struggling with mental health problems related to the pandemic, with a study conducted by YouGov revealing young adults are suffering from more mental health issues than any other grouping in the United Kingdom. One cannot underestimate the effects of inevitably increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, particularly among first year university students, who face a near non-existent Freshers’ Week and being confined to a single small room, alone, in their halls of residence. The desire to cement new friendships and feel connected to people in the first semester will become stunted by the requirement to socially distance. Though students may get to socialise within limited ‘bubbles’ on their corridors, this proposed solution to otherwise total isolation does not consider that groups of students thrown together by circumstance may not bond with each other as well as one would hope. This resulting burden of loneliness on new students, many of whom will already be coping with the stress of leaving their homes and friends behind for the first time, will be hugely debilitating for their mental health.
Furthermore, the continued uncertainty students face regarding their futures only adds to the devastation of their mental well-being. When the pandemic hit, young people saw their immediate and distant futures completely upended, with there being a rapid loss in the security that remains essential to personal well-being. While the re-opening of universities with the promise of a ‘hybrid’ form of online and face-to-face teaching initially restored some of the certainty we had lost from our lives, students right here in Edinburgh are already discovering that many schools of learning have opted to shift to entirely online teaching. Depending on which courses you take, the next year of your university life could be conducted almost entirely through a computer screen, denying you the educational and mental benefits that arise from spontaneous, in-person discussions. This constantly having to adjust to the rules being changed, often abruptly and usually at the last minute, makes it impossible to reinstall the security we need in our lives.
The mental implications of this are significant, with one survey conducted by YoungMinds reporting that 83% of young respondents agreed that the pandemic had worsened pre-existing mental health conditions due to loss of routine and the rapid changes to how education is received. And indeed, as the UK appears to fluctuate between a desire for normalcy and more stringent lockdown measures, we may have no other security to grasp onto other than the certainty that the future of the young student will, for the foreseeable, be uncertain.
Image: Wokandapix via WikiCommons