By Nadya Dimitrova
The closure of Universities, which was an inevitable step for the UK, was put in place a few weeks back to prevent the spread of the virus. Since then, the communication released by the University of Surrey has shown some disregard towards key issues faced by students. Email and social media campaigns have been highlighting the importance of physical activity and productivity, failing to focus on the more pressing matter of mental health. Mainly, the University and the Students’ Union campaigns fall short of recognising the additional stress that these daily updates bring students.
To begin with, the official communication is not providing timely responses to frequently asked questions. The daily updates are supposed to serve one purpose – provide new information – yet so far, they have failed to do so and instead are simply repeating already well-known facts about the action plan adopted by the University. Moreover, the daily updates add to the widespread panic that the pandemic has caused. Students definitely do not need the constant reminder that their degrees and social life have been suddenly changed. Furthermore, the lack of timely updates caused a number of students to leave university accommodation or off-campus accommodation last minute, causing additional worries about contracts, bills and refunds. This can easily result in deteriorating mental health and/or physical health.
The University in their communications have also shown a lack of understanding about a small proportion of students who might not have been able to leave their accommodation. There is information about government guidance for students staying on campus but the University itself seems not to engage with the reasons behind students staying and thus, fails to offer support – whether on a physical or psychological level. There has notably been no visible recognition of some groups of students, especially those with invisible illnesses or the LGBTQ+ students, for example, who may be lacking family support and therefore sometimes a place to call home. Additionally, those students are more likely to lack funds to travel even if they have a strong support network and a home away from campus. Without getting into the statistics too much, LGBTQ+ students are also more likely to suffer from depression and this sometimes results in drug and alcohol misuse. For some LGBTQ+ students, but also just in general, not going home is a choice which helps them avoid falling back into these habits and yet the University, at first glance at least, does not seem to provide the adequate support for these people and help them avoid feeling depressed. The situation around the world is severe, but that doesn’t mean that a small number of students should be disregarded when it comes to action-planning. Diversity and equality should always guide the actions of senior management in times of crisis.
While LGBTQ+ students and students with invisible illnesses can be impacted in worse ways than the rest of the student population, it doesn’t mean that other student groups are not suffering from the lack of clear communication from the University. Final year undergraduate students say they feel more depressed due to the constant emails containing no new information. One final year student has confessed that it makes them feel worse knowing that they might not be able to return to campus and experience their ‘lasts’ with university friends. Additionally, final years feel the pressure of the expectations from the University to finish their degrees successfully, clearly knowing that a graduation ceremony might not take place in July. Yes, the potential cancellation of a graduation ceremony is the least of students’ worries. However, the importance of the event is not to be belittled and the University should provide a clear statement on how students will receive their diplomas and can be celebrated without having the ceremony. The prospect of not having a ceremony can affect a lot of students’ ability to focus on their studies and thus, contribute to deteriorating their mental health even more. Furthermore, social media campaigns keep implying that students should stay productive when there is a clear need to recognise that productivity in these challenging times should not define student success.
Bottom line is that, while the University has engaged with the situation in various ways, the campaigns have failed to recognise the diversity of the student body and the need to relieve the stress that students may be experiencing instead of adding to the already existing panic. The Students’ Union campaign seems to be aimed at keeping students active and productive without recognising the fact that productivity is not the priority at the moment and that the students’ mental health should come first.
Nadya Dimitrova is a final year International Politics student at the University of Surrey.