Source: Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mental_Health_Message.jpg
Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has changed much of how we live our daily lives, it has also had a significant effect on the mental health of university students. In particular, some students have experienced varying impacts on their mental health due to a range of factors from isolation to Covid-19 anxiety. The Beaver spoke to several students on their experiences living in LSE undergraduate student halls.
LSE Halls of Residence had contracts starting from the beginning of term. Students are only allowed refunds on their accommodation if they can not return to the UK for reasons beyond their control. Further, they are required to provide documentation supporting their case such as a government webpage, flight cancellation, or a visa rejection.
Over the course of Michaelmas Term, many students have had to self-isolate due to quarantine rules for travellers, or coming in contact or sharing a household with a Covid-19 case. A student from Passfield commented, “In a way, this has become the new university experience. Isolating together is what a lot of us students go through.”
As a household is defined as involving everyone who shares a kitchen, one can include between 8-35 students. The average household number is 21, according to a spokesperson from LSE Residential & Catering Services Division. LSE follows UK government guidance and asks everyone in the household to isolate once made aware of a case or possible case*. LSE notes that it may need to isolate all households within a hall if there are connected cases in separate households.
For many first-year students, self-isolation is one of their first experiences of university life. Those who are less familiar with living alone may have a harder time with this transition. Self-isolation may mean spending everyday with yourself, and it may be difficult to avoid feeling lethargic at some times. The limited freedom of only leaving your room for the kitchen or bathroom can make going through the day more difficult as well.
A BSc Accounting and Finance student in Bankside noted a sense of helplessness: “If you’re isolating at home, you’ve got your parents to take care of you. Whereas at Bankside, it’s two members of staff taking care of 500 students.”
Students are required to wear a face covering in communal areas and asked to clean shared spaces after use with cleaning products provided, but some students may feel reluctant to socialize during isolation. The student from Passfield felt that a household in halls can consist of strangers who do not necessarily have the same understanding of respect. In this sense, isolation can be a surreal experience, being locked in a corridor with people all trying to adapt to communal living. The student said, “Some people do feel more comfortable hanging out together, which is great because they do feel supported, as they’re all going through the same thing. But then some people don’t feel as comfortable doing that, which means it’s very easy to feel alone, even though you’re isolating with 35 other people.”
The student also said, “I just went into a mental state of ‘I don’t want to see anybody,’ because I felt like if I did, I would catch it. I still feel uncomfortable when I see someone in the hallways or the kitchen not wearing a mask.” Moreover, when someone has tested positive for Covid-19, sharing a communal area may cause worry to some people. However, for others this worry was mitigated as halls have assigned usage times or designated areas for those tested positive in communal areas.
After LSE transitioned to rapid testing and opened a test site at Passfield Hall, some students experienced worry over students from different residences being allowed in. The Passfield Hall testing centre is also reportedly where the common room once was, and a few students have expressed discomfort over its proximity to the dining hall. In Rosebery, a BSc Economics student was concerned that cleaners did not have a fixed schedule when coming to a self-isolating floor as they would have preferred to stay inside when staff came to the floor.
The self-isolation guide encourages students to stick to a regular routine, keep connected with friends and family, exercise, and participate in online activities such as joining virtual common rooms. However, what kinds of exercise students can do may be limited by the amount of space students have in their room.
When confined to the same room, students are forced to get their social interaction outside their household via online methods. It can be draining to participate in further online activities after already being in online lectures, seminars, and meetings for most of the day. Besides this, a student in Carr Saunders thought socialising was more difficult, with societies switching to mainly online events due to Covid-19.
Students have had to switch from in-person to online learning due to being in self-isolation. An International Relations student from Bankside said, “It took me a few hours to get my situation sorted for the period in which I’m isolating. For some classes, you just start joining the same class online, for others you join another class that happens entirely online with another class teacher, and some people have to ask their peers for notes because they do not have any classes at all.”
On working during isolation, the student said, “It doesn’t feel like there are any consequences to your work. You finish doing a reading, then there is another reading, and it is like you cannot see the point of it all.” When not in isolation, students could go outside to get fresh air and a change of scenery to boost their mood. The student also felt that if one is unable to exercise and has a room without much lighting, it makes it really hard to work productively. Staying in the same place can also be an obstacle to keeping a routine, since leaving for classes form part of the structure of students’ daily lives. The BSc Economics student in Rosebery also commented, “Isolation is boring, and it makes you feel like you’re missing out on stuff. It’s hard to work.”
In halls of residences, a warden and sub-wardens form the pastoral support team, and peer supporters are available. In Carr-Saunders, students who tested positive for Covid-19 were reportedly given daily check-ups. The student in Passfield said, “My sub-warden has been extremely helpful. I think help is available if you seek it. The warden also has been calling people and emailing them throughout, which is nice.” In Rosebery, the BSc Economics student talked to the sub-warden a week into self-isolation.
An LSE spokesperson said, “The Student Wellbeing Service, including counsellors, mental health advisors and student peer supporters, is operating primarily online to support students whether they’re based on campus or remotely. Students can book appointments via the Student Wellbeing web pages, where they’ll also find details of workshops and other mental health and wellbeing resources at LSE. Students who are concerned about their wellbeing can also talk to their academic mentor or another trusted member of staff as well as access academic support at LSE and their department.
Demand for counselling at LSE is similar to this time last year. There is currently a 3-4 week waiting time for both in-person and online counselling appointments and LSE’s Student Wellbeing Service is planning to increase the amount of counselling support available over the coming weeks.”
*After discussions with Southwark’s Public Health England, Bankside House is running a trial where only close contacts in households will be asked to self-isolate, according to email communications. Close contacts include those who have done any of the following 48 hours before a case starting: spent more than 15 minutes with someone at a one to two metres distance, spent any time face to face within one metre, or a lot of time in shared spaces at any distance. If there are several cases within a household, everyone in the household will be asked to isolate.
Additional reporting by Jack Beeching, Akanksha Saxena, and Beatriz Silva