Living in a bubble of one: students and universities across Yorkshire speak out about the challenges of isolation for young people

Amid Covid restrictions and online teaching, universities across Yorkshire have opened up about the loneliness students have endured during a global pandemic, Ruth Dacey reports.

Sunday, 10th January 2021, 4:45 pm

When Graeme Brannan moved to Leeds for his first year at university in September, he knew the experience would be hugely different.

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But the paramedic student did not expect to have to endure long periods of time alone in his studio flat.

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Pictured, first year paramedic student Graeme Brannan, from the University of Bradford, who moved to Leeds in September last year. Photo credit: Simon Hulme/ JPIMediaResell

Having previously suffered from anxiety and depression, the University of Bradford student is determined to ensure isolated students on his course do not suffer in silence.

The student representative told The Yorkshire Post: “My anxiety was worse when I was on my own a lot of the time.

“That is when your mind races and that starts that spiral. I think that is happening for a lot of university students at the moment.”

Mr Brannan, 27, who left a successful career in finance to re-train to become a paramedic, said he is one of “the lucky” students, as due to the practical nature of his course, he has been on campus on average three times a week in a "social bubble" of up to seven students.

Pictured first year University of Bradford student Graeme Brannan. When he arrived at university for his first year in September he knew the student experience would be a challenge – but not that he would have long periods of time alone in his studio flat.

However, he said that he was aware of one student who is considering dropping out of the course.

He added: “I know some people on healthcare courses haven’t had any time in university. I am definitely one of the lucky ones.

“But there has been one person who has spoken about dropping out because they just don’t think they can handle this kind of pressure due to the times we are in.”

But with most student societies moving online, coupled with the fact Mr Brannan, who is originally from Liverpool, lives in a studio flat, he said he had limited opportunities to make friends.

A sign in the window of student accommodation, taken during the pandemic. Universities across Yorkshire have reported a raft of new measures put in place to help students across the region, including many social media initiatives. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

“I don’t feel I’ve had that first year university experience.

“We’ve not had the chance to meet others at the university - we can only engage with people who are doing the same course.

“Someone who is not from the area that was going to be key for me in terms of creating a social circle in the area.

“When you’re sitting there on your own - it can be lonely.

Pictured, Professor Shirley Congdon, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bradford. She stressed that every effort is being made to help students cope with the lockdown by the university including keeping counselling services open on campus.

“There have been nights when I have sat here - and it would be nice to have a friend round, even sitting in someone’s company would be nice.”

However Mr Brannan said embracing university digital initiatives including a weekly zoom party with his rugby sports team, which had a focus on mental health, had helped.

He advised fellow students to also embrace technology to aid with isolation during these unprecedented times.

"Any student in isolation is massively at risk. When you live on your own - you don’t have a person there to notice those little signs of when you are not coping well - I think that is a key thing that everyone needs, he said.

"Make the most of whatever you do have. Don't always think that you have nothing - there is a whole world out there on social media - which has got its pros and it's cons - but make the most of that. If you need to speak to people use that - use zoom, facetime, video messaging."

There are nearly 200,000 students studying in Yorkshire every year, normally bringing an annual £2.9bn boost to the economy, with the higher education sector supporting more than 54,000 jobs.

Pictured mass testing of university students for Covid 19 at the Allam Centre, Hull University in January to help enable a safe return for the Spring Term. This year has been very different for university students in the region including lateral flow tests, which means that results can be rapidly turned around within an hour. Photo credit: The University of Hull.

Professor Shirley Congdon, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bradford, stressed that every effort is being made to help students cope with the lockdown.

Prof Congdon, who is also the chairwoman of the Yorkshire Universities group representing 12 institutions in the region, said: “Lockdown phases are not ideal and definitely not ideal for young people. We know a lot of students want to get back to their sports, they want to be with their friends. It is very difficult for them.

“This is why a lot of students are feeling increasingly frustrated and some are feeling isolated because they want to get back to normal. That is going to take some time.”

A raft of measures have been brought in by the university, including counselling and mental health services remaining open on campus for students to visit in person.

“We know that we have got to keep our counselling and mental health services open, explained Professor Congdon. “It’s very difficult to go through counselling if you live in a multi occupancy household and you need your privacy. You have still got to allow students to be able to access some on campus facilities.”

The university has rolled out social media initiatives, and there are also online sessions to seek support from staff.

Since the university launched its Emergency Covid-19 Hardship Appeal in December, a fund to alleviate the financial impact of the pandemic, it has raised more than £10,000.

The institute's money team saw a 117 per cent rise in applications for hardship funding and the university has delivered small grants and food parcels.

A month since its launch, more than £10,000 has been raised and £138,000 extra funding is available for support.

Faiz Ilyas, a student at University of Bradford, said: “Not everyone in the university community has come from a background where they can have access to money from family members.

“Due to Covid-19 restrictions, many students have lost vital part-time jobs which provided an income to pay bills, rent and food while studying.”

Meanwhile, the Sheffield Hallam University reported nearly 2,500 one-to-one well-being appointments being delivered to students since the start of the academic year.

Students also have round-the-clock access to well-being support via the university's online mental health service, Togetherall, and support lines such as Sheffield Nightline.

“We appreciate that this is a difficult time and a significant strain on the wellbeing of many of our students,” a spokeswoman from the university said.

Elsewhere in South Yorkshire the University of Sheffield said they had implemented a "fast-track” to mental health support for students self-isolating who may be finding things difficult.

It also has online mental health workshops running until the end of March in collaboration with Mind, as part of the mentally-healthy universities programme.

It has also created a £3m Covid-19 Support Fund for any students facing particular financial challenges as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The University of Hull said 1,366 well-being appointments had taken place.

Dr Anji Gardiner, the director of student support services at the University of Hull, said: ““It is important that we all recognise that when we are feeling stressed or isolated – that we are not alone in feeling like this. These are difficult times and we encourage our students and staff to talk to us if they need to and to continue to support one another.”

"There is no doubt that this is a challenging time for students – and we are all having to come to terms with the restrictions of the latest lockdown.

“We know these periods of increased restrictions are very difficult and come with personal challenges for us all.

“Social isolation – whether students are actually self-isolating or not – means they have less of a buffer than usual to be able to face the current challenges.

"However, our student support services are open to provide counselling and wellbeing support -including coping strategies - through one-to-one sessions and self-help. In fact, we know that students have also been reaching out to each other to provide support since the start of the pandemic."

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