'It has been unbearable': University students open up about loneliness endured during a global pandemic

University students from across the region have spoken to The Yorkshire Post about isolation having a huge impact on their wellbeing and mood. Ruth Dacey reports.

The previous two academic years for university students have been greatly disrupted - with many students having to spend months off campus.

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When Aidan Salari started his first year at university in September, he knew the experience would not be what he had expected when he applied.

Pictured, students leave messages at their halls of residence. The previous two academic years for university students have been greatly disrupted due to the pandemic. Photo credit: Getty Images

But the architecture student, who is paying £9,250 a year, did not think he would have to endure long periods of time alone staring at four walls.

Having previously not suffered from a mental health condition, the Leeds Beckett University student said he has since suffered from increased anxiety.

The student from Liversidge told The Yorkshire Post: “It has been unbearable at points if I am being honest.

“Before the pandemic hit, I was just about happy with myself in terms of mental health and being in a good place, but as soon as I started university and we went into lockdown it just got gradually worse and worse and worse as loneliness grew and grew.”

Pictured, a student is tested at the University of Hull in January this year. Photo credit: JPIMedia

Over the academic year Mr Salari, 18, has received just four months of face-to-face teaching, one day a week. Normally the course would see students in a studio four days a week with face-to-face teaching.

And he said the drop-off in interaction with students has hit him hard and with most student societies moving online, coupled with the fact Mr Salari lives at home he said he had limited opportunities to make friends.

He said: “I ended up making friends in October but haven’t seen them at all because of the lockdowns - so it’s been hard to maintain those friendships.

“It’s been very lonely...It has been me in my bedroom, for an entire year basically.”

Pictured, Professor Zahir Irani, the deputy vice-chancellor for the University of Bradford who is also the chair for the recent five-year Bradford District Economic Recovery Plan, said the pandemic had been particularly hard for first year university students. Photo credit: The University of Bradford

He said that he was aware of roughly 15 students who had dropped out of the course out of 80 in total.

While acknowledging that Leeds Beckett had provided “amazing” support in terms of mental health support, guidance, and sympathy to struggling students, he said he had been left with the feeling of being short-changed.

He said: “We have been robbed of the university experience but we have also been let down in terms of mental wellbeing.

“We are paying all this money for a course not even being half delivered how it would have been in person.”

Mr Salari added the Government had “forgotten” the needs of university staff and students throughout this pandemic and as part of the easing of lockdown restrictions, and universities could have safely opened sooner to all students than the May 17 date.

“We should have gone back when schools did- especially when there are so many students that live alone, it’s like our mental health hasn’t been taken into account at all.

“I think it’s been handled so badly...If this was ever to happen again in the future - they seriously need to consider students more because how they have dealt with it has been disappointing.”

Elsewhere Lucy Brooks, a second year student from the University of York, added: "We have missed out on the opportunity to socialise and meet new people, it has caused many people to mentally spiral.

“The government have completely ignored the wellbeing of university students throughout the pandemic.

“They have let schools recommence, and yet we are still forced to study online, isolated from our peers. It costs so much to attend and live at university - this year I have paid the same amount as a normal year with half the experience.

“I have never sat university exams in person, meaning that my final year will be my first experience doing this, which is completely unfair.”

There are nearly 200,000 students studying in Yorkshire every year, normally bringing an annual £2.9bn boost to the economy, with the higher education sector supporting more than 54,000 jobs.

Professor Zahir Irani, the deputy vice-chancellor for the University of Bradford, said that every effort is being made to help students cope with the lockdown but acknowledged the institute had benefited from the large number of practical courses on offer meaning it was compulsory for students to receive campus learning.

Professor Irani, who is also the chair for the recent five-year Bradford District Economic Recovery Plan, added it had been particularly hard for first year students.

He said: “There have been students that have really struggled...in particular new students...because the social network - the real intricate part of the university experience has just been completely missed.”

Since the university launched its Emergency Covid-19 Hardship Appeal in December, a fund to alleviate the financial impact of the pandemic, it has raised more than £30,000.

The institute's money team saw a 117 per cent rise in applications for hardship funding and the university has delivered small grants and food parcels.

A spokesman for Yorkshire Universities - a group representing 12 institutes across the region - said: “The past fourteen months has seen unprecedented disruption and challenge for students, staff and all connected with universities and the higher education sector.

"Universities have been working with students and student unions to provide increased health and well-being support services for students. Universities nationally have also been in discussions with NHS England/Improvement to support local health systems to transform mental health services to meet the needs of students.

"While in Yorkshire, the region’s universities and Public Health England are working collectively to share knowledge and information in order to expand and improve the overall range of measures and interventions that are designed to further help our students."

A Department for Education spokesperson added: "This has been a difficult time for students.”

“We have recently distributed £70m to help students most in need, for example those struggling to cover accommodation costs as a result of the pandemic, in addition to an existing £256m available to universities."


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