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‘You’ll get to the finish line eventually’: Dundee student speaks out about impact of pandemic on mental health

Male College Student Meeting With Campus Counselor Discussing Mental Health Issues; Shutterstock ID 1704719680; Purchase Order: The Courier health and wellbeing team; Job: Sudents mental health; 6fd2eb0d-5c13-4805-91d5-0dd271a4fe01
Male College Student Meeting With Campus Counselor Discussing Mental Health Issues; Shutterstock ID 1704719680; Purchase Order: The Courier health and wellbeing team; Job: Sudents mental health; 6fd2eb0d-5c13-4805-91d5-0dd271a4fe01

For many of us, going to university or college is our first step into independence, adulthood and all the excitement that awaits. 

But for students attending college and university in the past year, the presence of Covid-19 has turned their studies into a minefield that has, at times, felt impossible to navigate.

Dylan McLaren, a student from Dundee, was excited to begin his studies at Edinburgh University last September, but the pandemic turned his – and many others’ – plans upside down.

‘Between a rock and a hard place’

Dylan explains: “The first semester was pretty bad. I was only in Edinburgh for a week before it started to look like I was going to get stuck there, so I moved back in with my parents in Dundee for most of the first semester.

“It was a very ‘between a rock and a hard place’ scenario: it meant going home and missing out on meeting new people, but at least I was home safe and able to be supported through the very odd learning structure.

Edinburgh University

“But I don’t know how much better it would have been being in Edinburgh in the first semester because nobody was seeing each other, as we were properly locked down for the majority of it.

“It was a mixed experience. Being home, it did feel very isolating, but I was assuming it would have also felt isolating if I’d been locked down in Edinburgh anyway, so it was probably for the better.”

Difficult decisions

After the first semester, Dylan decided to take his chances and head back to Edinburgh, to properly embark on student life.

He remembers: “All my friends from Dundee were in other cities. I just needed a different head space and also, I hadn’t met anyone to move in with in second year, so that was one of the main pushes to come back.

“It was different in halls but I faced just as many challenges as I did at home. I have one flatmate instead of five, so I basically had a six-person flat to myself for the semester.

“The number of people I’ve actually met and know their names, I can just about count them on one hand. I know about six people in the city, but at least I do have a group of people I can move in with in second year. It has been worthwhile, but it has been very mixed.”

Coping with isolation

Even prior to the pandemic, students were more likely to develop mental health problems than the general population and research shows that many people first experience mental health problems or first seek help when they are at university.

A year into the pandemic, 52% of students say their mental health has deteriorated or been affected negatively by Covid-19, and only 20% have sought help.

For many students, heading off to university and college is their first time away from home. As many have learned, trying to do so a global pandemic can be difficult to cope with and social isolation is a common issue.

Dylan continues: “The isolation really makes it a struggle to engage with anything. Time moves differently when you’re on your own.

“During assignments and online exams, there have been days where I’ve gone a full 24 hours without opening my mouth to speak to someone. It makes you go a bit stir crazy and you just lose track of time.”

As we begin to emerge from lockdown and bars and restaurants reopen, some of the activities students are best known for are back on the cards. But for many, the struggles from the past year won’t be erased by a simple trip to the pub.

Dylan says: “I’m still getting there. I’m still phoning my parents for a chat and doing things like going out for walks and phoning friends while they’re at their university.

“With actual studies, we’ve been absolutely on our knees trying to crawl over the finish line. I don’t really have any coping strategies, I’m just glad I’ve had a support network that have helped me get through the majority of this.”

Dylan McLaren.

For students who have left home for the first time, this year has meant being thrown into the deep end. But support is available for those who need it.

Dylan advises: “Keep in touch with your parents and don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Whether you’re moving forward in inches or miles, you’ll get to the finish line eventually.”

For information and mental health support, visit Young Minds, or SAMH.

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