Over the weekend, many students, staff, and members of the wider community were shocked by the escalation of measures used to contain self-isolating students in halls across the country. Some of these measures were far more restrictive than any imposed during the March lockdown. Worryingly, the application of these measures lead to students and non-students being treated differently.
Some of the accounts we have heard are deeply troubling, describing difficulties in accessing food, students being obstructed from exiting their premises, a lack of communication from institutions, and the use of security threats to intimidate students into compliance. We will continue to monitor the situation and will actively seek first hand experience and insight from students affected in order to ensure our work is evidence-led.
At Student Minds we are conscious that social distancing and self isolation can have a detrimental impact on student mental health. While we recognise the utmost importance of ensuring that our university communities are Covid-safe, we note that overzealous measures designed not to keep everybody safe and well, but to threaten students, do more harm than good. Where new lockdown restrictions are designed, either by higher education institutions or the government itself, we recommend the following:
Students should not be subject to more stringent self-isolation measures than other groups of the population. Making regulations specifically targeted at students without accommodating for the breadth of student experience is unhelpful. For instance, a mature, commuter student and an eighteen year-old student living in university halls will experience their learning and engage with campus facilities differently. Beyond this, student-specific measures arbitrarily target and penalise certain members of the community, while we have yet to see evidence which unequivocally demonstrates that students are actually more likely to violate social distancing than the wider population.
Mental health and wellbeing considerations must be accounted for at every stage of the decision-making process. The detrimental mental health impacts of self-isolation have been central in public discourse for the last six months. There is no excuse not to account for the potential harm to mental health that lockdown restrictions can inflict. Any such harms should be mitigated as much as possible, with proactive and specific measures and support put in place to ensure that our communities are as safe and healthy as possible. Universities and all levels of government should have a clear plan for how they are going to support students and staff through this period of instability, and be ready for multiple eventualities.
Students and staff should be meaningfully included in decisions about the health and wellbeing of our university communities. At Student Minds, we know the importance of representing and learning from the lived experience of students and staff. Students and university staff know what is happening on the ground and understand what would make them feel safer and more supported. They have a right to be in the room for decisions that affect them, particularly following months of turbulence and uncertainty regarding the shape of higher education this year.
We also note that many university staff have been working flat-out over the summer in order to support students as best they can. Our aim is not to blame these staff, and we want to reaffirm that the contributions of staff in universities and students’ unions have been remarkable throughout this period. However, we implore anybody involved in decisions surrounding lockdown measures to ensure that they are fair, non-discriminatory, and proportionate, with the mental health of our university communities considered at every step of the process.
If you or someone you know is in need of support Student Space is here to help students through the coronavirus pandemic. Access online resources, direct support in a way that is right for you such as through our text support and phone line and find out what support is available at your university.
We are troubled to hear of new lockdown restrictions in Scotland, agreed by Scottish university leaders, which exclusively target students.
We share the frustrations of students who have now been told not to return to their home address, not to mix with people from outside their household, and have been singled out by instructions not to attend hospitality venues. This follows months of messaging from institutions and the government encouraging students to move to campus and reassurances that they would still enjoy a full university experience despite measures needed to contain the pandemic. We have seen no evidence that restrictions imposed for a sole weekend will do much to stifle the spread of the virus, making this little more than a gesture that plays up to negative attitudes towards students while not doing anything of substance to protect them, university staff, or the wider community.
This announcement comes at a time where much of the public discourse has pinned the blame on students for the resurgence of the virus. This does not reflect the reality we see where the majority of students are indeed worried about catching the virus and passing it on to others, nor does it represent the efforts of the many students who are obeying social distancing guidelines. We thus find measures which single out students to be needlessly divisive.
As the United Kingdom’s national student mental health charity, we know that the transition period into university can be a particularly challenging time for new students even outside the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Lockdown restrictions were seen to have a negative impact on student mental health and wellbeing under the initial lockdown in March and April. As such, we are mindful that lockdown restrictions must be designed to cause as little detriment to student mental health as possible and complemented by increased mental health support.
At Student Minds we strongly encourage all students and members of the wider community to follow social distancing guidelines and lockdown restrictions as they pertain to their area. However, such restrictions must be fairly applied and their benefit well-evidenced. Any guidelines created in response to the pandemic must be designed in such a way that the detrimental impact on mental health is limited as much as possible.
We hope that, going forward, lockdown restrictions which apply to students will be co-created in meaningful consultation with student and staff representatives, to protect the mental health and wellbeing of not only our universities, but also our wider communities.
If you are a student experiencing mental health difficulties, find out what help and support is available.