As we kick off 2021, we are still facing the uncertainty of when we can get away from the “new normal” to just, well, normal. Whether you entered university at the end of last year or have been studying for a while, there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has made an indelible mark on student life.

In this article, we discuss some of the struggles faced by students, recognise the impact this has had and look at some of the positive steps you can take to cultivate wellbeing during difficult times.

Shifting expectations

Imagine this; you have been at university for six months. You’ve settled in, become used to morning lectures, lunchtime tutorials and the odd pub trip with your new-found friends. Then COVID-19 hits. All of a sudden you are thrust into isolation. Or perhaps this is your scenario; you have earned a place at university on the course of your dreams, but things are not what you expected in the least. You have left home, are isolated inside student halls, attend all your classes online, and generally feel pretty stranded.

There is no denying that this pandemic has affected all walks of life, but the higher education sector has experienced significant and impactful changes that have made this highly formative experience not quite what was expected.

The first thing we expect to receive is an education, of course. But being at university has always promised to offer so much more than this alone. Though the way in which courses are being delivered has changed, the education part is still up for grabs. What has been lost is the extracurricular side of things. The opportunity to join societies and sports clubs, enjoy a broad range of hobbies, explore whichever city or town you find yourself in, pub nights, club nights, movie nights and ceilidhs – even the occasional formal ball.

Whether you consider yourself to be a social butterfly or a more introverted type, these activities, alongside physical attendance at lectures and tutorials, make it easier to find a group of likeminded people to call your tribe. The act of making and maintaining friendships has become a far greater challenge than ever before.

The mainstays of university teaching are lectures and tutorials. This has not changed but the method of delivery undoubtedly has. In our current situation, we cannot expect to join all of our peers in lecture theatres or work intimately in small groups. You may be fully online or working under a hybrid model. You may be in halls of residence, a student flat, or at home. These factors will vary, depending on your situation and are likely to shift and change as we see our way through this pandemic.

Read more about the current educational landscape in our article, From campus learning to distance learning. What remains, right now, is that the student experience has shifted from one of broadened horizons and opportunity to one that is very isolating. With no clear end in sight, the outlook can seem particularly bleak.

Acknowledging the struggle

The word “isolation” has become inextricably linked to COVID-19. Indeed, many students have come to university only to have contracted the virus itself. These individuals, and those that have come into contact with them, have had to face the real and unpleasant fact of “self-isolation”, with or without the symptoms of the virus. Yet, all students have been facing isolation this year in one way or another. This pandemic has limited the opportunities to form and maintain the types of peer support that help see us through the challenge of earning a university degree.

And earning a degree is hard work! There have always been difficulties to contend with – 9 a.m. lectures, essay deadlines, exams – to name but a few. Aside from the real and obvious difficulties that come with viral infection, this pandemic has highlighted additional struggles that make studying even more challenging. It is important to acknowledge the difficulties that are being faced at present, to help see our way out of them.

There are practical issues to contend with – the main offender being Internet connectivity! When your course is online, a patchy Wi-Fi signal makes following synchronous lectures tricky, to say the least. It is hard to get much out of small group learning if you cannot see or hear the others in your team. None of this will matter if you do not have a device that allows you to access online content. These disparities are real and make the learning environment all the more difficult.

Being stuck indoors makes life unpleasant too. Attending lectures in your pyjamas from the cosiness of your bed might seem like a nice idea – but too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Our bodies crave routine, daylight, fresh air and movement – all of which could be gained through the simple act of getting out the door to class each day.

“Acknowledgment of the struggle puts you on the path to effect positive change.”

It is no surprise, then, that you may be feeling lonely, anxious, overwhelmed or depressed. You may be confused about what is going on with your course, disappointed at how your student life is shaping up, stressed with all that is going on in the world today. How we are living right now is putting a strain on mental and emotional wellbeing.

All of this is completely understandable. It may be tempting to pretend that everything’s fine, put on a brave face and battle on regardless. This approach may be okay in the short term but true recognition of difficult feelings during this time is a far healthier way of looking after yourself. Acknowledgment of the struggle puts you on the path to effect positive change.

Nurturing wellbeing

You may be wondering, then, what you can do to help make life a little less difficult at this time. Thankfully, there are lots of options.

Actively looking after mental health is a vital process that should be encouraged for all. Here we offer some steps that you can take to improve your general wellbeing.

1. Talk it out

As the old saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. This might seem trite, but this does not make it any less true. Expressing your feelings and the issues that are worrying you often helps to put things into perspective. It allows us to shift things from being held within, where they can circle around and keep us stuck, to the outer world where we can view them more objectively.

Share your concerns with supportive family or friends. These people care about your wellbeing and may be able to offer practical advice alongside that listening ear.

2. Write it down

Sometimes the idea of voicing our innermost thoughts can be a bit daunting. Putting how you feel into words can still be of huge benefit. One way to do this, whilst maintaining privacy, is to keep a journal. Dumping the contents of your brain onto paper can be liberating, giving you the chance to create some valuable headspace.

Having your concerns written down allows you to look at them from a different perspective, allowing you to address things more clearly. You may be able to identify specific factors that are triggers for low mood or anxiety, then take steps to reduce the impact of these in your life.

Or, perhaps you do want to share your thoughts with others but find it easier to express them via the written word. You could write a letter, email a loved one or maybe publish a blog exploring what life is like for students right now.

3. Give yourself a break

Figuratively and literally! We can be very hard on ourselves when we feel anything less than chipper, imagining that we should cope with whatever comes our way with grace and ease. Imagine someone you love in your situation – chances are you would be more supportive with them than you ever would be to yourself. Next time you are tempted to beat yourself up, stop. Treat yourself as you might others, with compassion and patience.

Rest breaks are important too. In fact they are essential if we are to work effectively and with focus. In previous times, these would happen naturally when moving from class to class, sitting down to lunch or grabbing a coffee. When studying remotely, it is essential to factor breaks into your schedule. Get up from your desk, do some stretching, take a walk out in the open air – whatever it takes to allow yourself to decompress. Then you can return to work with renewed vigour.

4. Eat, move, sleep

It almost goes without saying that eating well, taking exercise and enjoying quality sleep are essential for a healthy mind and body. A gentle remember never hurts. When you are feeling low, it can be tempting to munch on junk food, climb under the duvet and have an all-night box set binge. Including proper meal breaks, time for exercise and a regular sleep pattern into your schedule will go a long way to supporting your wellbeing.

5. Explore your interests

Extra-curricular interests can, and should, still be a part of your life. Current restrictions mean that some sports and hobbies are off limits, but there are many activities that can be safely engaged with. Indeed, many have used this time to take up new hobbies. You may be able to join or form a virtual social group based on your interests, helping to alleviate feelings of loneliness.

6. Get mindful to reduce stress

Mindfulness – turning kindly, non-judgemental awareness onto yourself in the present moment – is a practice that can significantly improve mental health. Allied mind-body activities such as meditation, coherent breathing and yoga are all beneficial as stress-relievers and inherently place us in mindful states. There are numerous apps and websites to help build and support stress-reduction practices, so trying these out has never been easier.

7. Be connected

We may be more physically isolated than ever before, but that does not mean we must be alone. Using online meeting platforms, we can have face-to-face time with people in the safest, most socially distanced way possible. Your university may have wellbeing groups that you can drop into when needed, or you could organise your own. Join a group to chat about your newest hobby or simply catch up with family and old friends. Seeing a friendly face can make all the difference to your day, so jump on opportunities to socialise in this way.

Asking for help

If you were already facing mental health issues or feel that things are now becoming too difficult to cope with, following the tips above might seem unsurmountable. In these circumstances, the most valuable thing to do is to seek help. To ask for help is never a sign of weakness. It is a positive step towards cultivating mental and emotional wellbeing.

Here we list a few sources of help that can put you on the road to recovery.

1. Student support services

Your institution will have services to support your welfare. It is advisable to make contact at the earliest opportunity. They can help you deal with a range of concerns, including financial and health worries and the practical issues associated with self-isolation. They can offer specific guidance and support, including counselling, to help you through your difficulties. Importantly, they can work with you to help minimise any adverse effects your special circumstances may have on your studies.

2. Contact your G.P.

Though not as straightforward as it used to be, your G.P. should still be available to discuss your health concerns. They can offer advice and support when you are facing depression and anxiety and will help you to manage your symptoms. They may refer you for counselling, talking therapies or cognitive behavioural therapy, services which are increasingly available via telephone or online.

3. Online advice and support

There are many organisations that have your mental wellbeing at the forefront of what they do and, thankfully, have created resources to help. Every Mind Matters, Student Minds and Office for Students all offer excellent information and advice on how to best nurture mental wellbeing and cope with difficulties faced during this pandemic.

Samaritans, Sane and Nightline are still working to support people throughout this time. You may prefer to look for peer support, which your institution may offer and help you access. Side by Side, an online community run by Mind, provides a safe space to talk about mental health concerns with those who understand.

Key takeaway

Taking steps to nurture mental wellbeing is a positive action that has myriad benefits for your quality of life. COVID-19 has forced many students into considering their mental health, perhaps for the first time. Adopting healthy practices now will not only help to see you through this current crisis but can be used to support lifelong mental wellbeing.