When Maria arrived at university for her first year in September she knew the student experience would be unusual – but not that she would be mostly alone.
After contracting coronavirus, probably on one of her few trips to the University of Nottingham campus, the 18-year-old spent 10 days quarantining in her room, with her mental health rapidly deteriorating. Shortly after, she went home and deferred her place until next year, hoping that would prevent her health from worsening.
“I think a lot of students had high expectations,” she told the Guardian. “We were all told things wouldn’t be too different, and we’d be fine. But when I first got there I realised the isolation and loneliness that I felt was really difficult to deal with.”
With no face to face lectures and most student societies moving online, coupled with the fact she lived in a studio flat, Maria, not her real name, had limited opportunities to make friends.
“I already struggled with a lot of mental health issues before, especially severe anxiety,” she said. “I dealt with it badly before starting sixth form, and two years on I was making so much progress. I knew going to uni and moving away from home was bound to cause some anxiety, with a pandemic on top of that, but my mental health had never been worse than when I was self-isolating.
“I lost my appetite and got tight stomach knots in the morning. I wasn’t eating for the first two to three weeks I was there.”
She asked to speak to a university counsellor but none was available for two weeks, although she was able to talk to the wellbeing team. After long conversations with family and friends, she decided to return home. She emphasised she had received plenty of support from the university.
“I’m glad I came home, now I’m feeling fine and starting to improve on my anxiety, hopefully I’ll be better off next year. Other friends have said deferring has crossed their mind too.”
The university said it sympathised with students experiencing difficulties during self-isolation, and confirmed its wellbeing team had supported Maria. “As with anyone in this situation, our teams will keep in touch with them and support them in resuming their studies with us in the future,” a spokesperson said.
“We have provided further support to make self-isolation a more comfortable experience, enabling households to isolate and take meals together, creating dedicated time and spaces for outdoor exercise, and offering a wide range of online films, theatre and other entertainments.”
Maria mentioned the death of 19-year-old Finn Kitson, a Manchester University student who died in his halls during lockdown earlier this month after having “severe anxiety”, and said the government “definitely have some things to answer for”. His death is as yet unexplained.
Kitson’s father, the Cambridge academic Michael Kitson, criticised Manchester University. “If you lockdown young people because of Covid-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety,” he tweeted.
Dr Simon Merrywest, director for the student experience at Manchester, said “all possible” support was being provided to the family and that the university had expressed its utmost sympathies. “The university is working closely with the Manchester coroner office, so we will not be able to comment any further,” he said.
Students across the UK have contacted the Guardian with serious concerns about the impact on their mental health of the restrictive measures imposed by universities on. Their accounts come as the government’s scientific advisers said that while Covid posed less direct risk to younger people’s physical health, the pandemic could catastrophically damage their mental health and economic and social prospects.
Several students said the had deferred their place, dropped out, or have been considering doing so. Those who contacted the Guardian expressed widespread concern over a lack of support, even for students with Covid symptoms in quarantine.
Ioan Fowler, a first-year student at Bournemouth University, said: “When me and two other people in my flat tested positive we told our accommodation team, which is separate from the university, and they said we need to isolate for 10 days. Then we rang the university, and their support was zero. The university messaged me after about five days and said I could join a Facebook group chat with others in isolation. But by then it was too late – we felt let down.”
Fowler said he was shocked the university had not provided food parcels, particularly as some of his flatmates were being sick and experiencing dizziness from suspected coronavirus. Their isolation period ended last week.
“We were all told that we needed to order food online, but I couldn’t get a delivery so my parents had to bring me a food package from Wales,” he said. “I’m paying over nine grand a year, I expect to have some sort of support when things go south, but there was just nothing.”
Bournemouth University said it was working hard to provide support to students self-isolating or who had tested positive. In an attempt to address the crisis, older students at some universities were providing one-to-one support to students struggling under the pandemic restrictions, particularly first years in quarantine.
At Bristol University, Sam Fearon, a second-year student and member of the university’s Project Talk society, said volunteers were being trained and would be “put in contact with students who may be suffering, to make friendly one-to-one calls”. The project launched on Wednesday, coinciding with the university’s announcement of the death of a third year student.
Fearon added: “It almost feels it would have been better if students had stayed at home given the mental hardship some are going through.”