By Nadeem Badshah
STUDENTS of south Asian origin in the UK have revealed their battle with mental health due to universities being closed during the lockdowns.
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to seminars, face-to-face lectures and social events being cancelled, with most courses being taught online.
Some 119 universities have reported coronavirus cases with around 35,000 students being diagnosed with the virus, according to figures released in early November.
Under the new lockdown rules, students may return home during the early December “travel window” and then be counted as part of their household. But students from abroad are facing the prospect of spending the festive season isolated on campus.
Amrita DasGupta is a PhD candidate in the gender studies department at SOAS University in London. She arrived in the UK from Kolkata in September and has battled “depression demons” with libraries and classrooms closed.
DasGupta told Eastern Eye: “Just like the gloomy weather of London, delayed registration and lack of human interaction did take a toll on my mental health.
“By the time I settled down in the university accommodation and made some time to venture out to discover London, the government had declared a lockdown.
“Since then, my one hour outside has only been the weekly grocery shopping at Tesco, situated opposite the lane where I live.”
The student added: “The one time I was able to visit the university campus physically was to collect my university students’ card. It was mostly empty.
“I thought to myself, in other years, even last year, how vibrant the place must have looked with students crowding in for registration and enrolment.
“However, the university and the faculty members have been very kind and thoughtful. We usually have fortnightly meetings with our cohort where we discuss everything except studies and syllabi.”
DasGupta said she has turned to writing letters and postcards and focusing on the positives of the lockdowns.
“The heart always thinks of the family back home and worries for their wellbeing. In such distressing times, libraries and sightseeing would have been the best distraction but the lockdown put an end to such opportunities.
“I explored the art of letter writing. I started reading about the historical monuments of London. Tried to find the woman’s place in shaping it. And wrote postcards with pictures of the monument under discussion to my five-year old niece back in Kolkata.
“I always try to relate to those stories personally and develop a sense of how ‘the personal is political’ for my little one. Postcard writing has been giving me immense joy, it allows me to talk without being judged.”
She added: “The one thing that the pandemic has done best, I must not complain, is to bring us close to our inner selves and our family.
“It has allowed us to dissociate from the cacophony of our busy urban life and retreat into the silences of nature.
“It’s taught us to appreciate what we have and what we can lose, to be grateful. I am grateful for the silences that let me think, that let me speak, and that which hears me out.”
The challenges for students from abroad are echoed by Jaspreet Singh, a PhD student at Birmingham City University.
He told Eastern Eye: “For me personally there have been several ups and downs.
“Being an international student, university is a second home to me. I really missed university and speaking to students from all parts of the world during the first lockdown.
“During the second lockdown the university is still open but the experience is not the same.
“Recently, we organised an online Diwali/Bandi Chhor Divas with around 50 students taking part in it, instead of having a full-on event like last year, with an attendance of around 180-200 students.”
Singh added: “The biggest source of support for me has been my employment as a part-time staff member in the university and university’s library which has been open for students to study.
“During the lockdowns I fell in love with my music instruments and also developed a deep love for nature.”
Some British Asian students have decided to return home to their families and study from their bedroom.
Farhana Ali, a criminology graduate in London, said: “My family and friends who are still at university have now had to study at home due to the pandemic.
“This has been very different for them as they haven’t been able to see friends or socialise with classmates. It is also easier to seek assistance in person from teachers and classmates.
“Studying at home has been different and they are looking forward to going back to university.
“Some of them have missed out on their graduation ceremonies which has been disappointing. It’s one of the biggest achievements in life and they have not had the opportunity to celebrate this.”
Mahel Khan, who is studying at the University of Nottingham, returned home to Kent for the last lockdown “partially due to mental health reasons but also because I didn’t want to feel isolated”.
He said: “Teaching is all right but I feel the main issue is the lack of transparency between universities across the country and their students.
“And also a lack of provisions in place to support things like mental health, taking coronavirus into consideration.”
The University of Nottingham said it has provided additional financial, social and mental health support where needed and will continue to adapt its approach.
Among the help offered by the government to overseas students includes the extension of visas for those unable to leave the UK, allowing student visa holders to study online and permitting them to switch visa categories in the UK.
For incoming students to Britain, new measures have included continuing to allow those on a Tier 4 visa to study online and enabling international PhD students to remain in the UK for three years after graduation to work or look for a job.
Universities UK said throughout the pandemic, universities have been working around the clock supporting students who have remained in the UK and those due to start their studies later this year. It has been working with organisations such as the UK Council for International Student Affairs, embassies and high commissions in the UK to support undergraduates and post graduates.
A Universities UK spokesman said: “There are hundreds of examples of universities supporting international students, whether that is through remote access to student services such as mental health support, providing food delivery services for those in self-isolation, or providing access to hardship funds for those students most in need.
“As universities started to welcome back students, they provided further support such as airport pick-ups, support through self-isolation periods where relevant, and providing welcome packs with products such as face coverings and hand sanitiser. Some universities offered flexibility to students depending on their circumstances where possible, such as later start dates or online starts, so that students can pursue their plans for UK study despite the challenges of Covid.
“All students should check directly with their university to find out about any flexibility or support on offer.”
A government spokesperson said protecting the mental health and wellbeing of students continues to be a top priority. The universities minister, Michelle Donelan, chairs a sector taskforce on the issue and has urged vice-chancellors to provide adequate and accessible mental health support.
“It is vital that students get the help that they need and those struggling with their mental health can find support from Public Health England’s Every Mind Matters campaign, and their local NHS Trust, which now provide dedicated, 24-hour support lines,” Donelan said.
“Universities can also access up to £256 million funding to use towards mental health support in 2020/21. We have worked closely with the Office for Students, providing up to £3m to fund the mental health platform, Student Space, which aims to provide additional support outside of university and NHS services.”
For help with mental health support, call the Samaritans on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.org.