*Names changed for privacy
“There’s help available, but only if you’re sort of at the edge of the cliff,” says Thomas*.
There’s no denying that 2020 was shit. Online learning, a literal plague, and David Seymour’s stubborn refusal to spontaneously combust.
These are the foundational years of our lives, and we’re living them in what sometimes seems like the end of the world. Everyone has been impacted by the lockdowns. It’s the uncertainty, the claustrophobia, the isolation. It’s the sense that it might go on forever, and that it might come back at any time. It’s traumatic. It’s being a university student in 2021.
One of the big struggles of this year and last year has been online learning, with some students feeling unproductive even though they studied from home. Other students had genuine barriers to sustaining a productive home working environment. I spoke to students who wanted to voice their personal challenges over this time.
Mary’s* struggles really began when she was forced to start working under Level Three. Thomas was stuck during Level Four living in a hotel where he was working. For Mary, the situation was made more difficult when she was not only working during the week, but also exhausted after work.
Our interviewees felt the support offered through the University was inadequate given the situation, but they also acknowledged that the University’s mental health professionals were working as hard as possible given limited resources. For most, it was the University administration policies that were disheartening.
Rebecca* described it as “a big joke,” and Mary agreed, calling it a “fend for yourself” approach. She didn’t feel like the University accounted for the fact that “[we] were actual students who had actual problems.” They felt the University was more concerned about itself as a business. Some students felt the University had failed to communicate clearly or take action. Although UoA’s administration acknowledged the potentially harmful impact of the lockdown on mental health, many feel like their policy consisted mostly of empty gestures. John* said he felt UoA was “almost never sincere.”
In a statement responding to student concerns, the University told me that they went to “extraordinary efforts” to support students last year. This included spending $3.5 million on hardship support and $5.3 million on health and mental health services to students. The University acknowledged the mental health issues faced by students but told me that “to suggest that the University of Auckland does not prioritise the wellbeing of our students is just not true.”
The University wanted to direct the attention of students to a number of changes that they have introduced in response to aid student mental health. These included the creation of Te Papa Manaaki/Campus Care, a student wellbeing team, and additional focus on the prevention of harmful sexual behaviours.
The University also offers six sessions of free counselling to all students. However, there was at least one interviewee who said he’d been turned away for not having severe enough issues. Another complaint was that the limit of six sessions forced students to ration them.
In response to these concerns, the University stated that they had “the most accessible counselling service of any university in the country.” According to their statement, the University’s counselling system operates on a “brief intervention model.” The University aims to provide support to students to remain in and complete their study, rather than ongoing treatment or crisis management. The University is aware that some students struggle to find appointments, but told me that “it is [often] because of their availability rather than ours.” The University also pointed to various other services they offer, like an online e-therapy tool and the Puawaitanga telephone counselling service.
When community transmission was revealed in the Auckland CBD in Semester Two, there was an immediate call from students to move exams online. Those interviewed felt that the University had taken too long to issue an update about exams, and this negatively impacted their study. Students also felt that the inconsistency of Semester Two exams created an unfair advantage for those who sat them online.
The University did take action in Semester One, offering a grade bump to the next grade boundary (e.g. from B- to B, or B+ to A-) which was more than what other New Zealand universities offered. However, there was a lack of similar action taken in Semester Two. This was somewhat ironic, given that many students reported that the second lockdown impacted them more negatively than the first. The first lockdown carried with it a sense of being a team of five million. When it ended, it felt like a triumph. The second lockdown showed us that we were wrong, that COVID was here to stay.
Thomas said there should be a focus on mental health funding, “Particularly, [when] we’re talking about the Vice Chancellor having a $5 million house they’re trying to sell at the moment.” He felt that “spending partially public money on a massive establishment like that is kind of irresponsible.”
Mary called for administrative reform: “The University actually has control over its policies around mental health… and around processes for applying for compassionate consideration, and for late deletions.” These could be changed to urge them to make them better, resulting in tangible differences for the student population.
John believes that “[the mental health crisis at Auckland University] is getting worse every day. COVID-19 has just brought it to the surface.” He says, “It was there a year ago. It was there two years ago. It was there five years ago… The weight is now on [the University] to do something meaningful, to use the vast funding available”.
It remains to be seen what additional action the University will take in a year of continuing lockdowns and existential dread. However, UoA’s new policy of shifting all exams online appears to be a positive first step.
But that’s not the whole picture. Students also felt that UoA should be more responsive to mental health concerns outside of COVID-19. 2020 discovered depression and anxiety like Columbus discovered America (he didn’t). 2020 was not an isolated event. Even when the lockdowns were over, Rebecca said that “things kind of just stayed hard.” A few interviewees said they actually coped pretty well over 2020, but this was only because they’d had shit years before that taught them how to cope. However, there was an understanding that there’s only so much the University can do. Sometimes it’s about taking ownership of our own mental health.
Students interviewed firmly believed that every struggle is unique, and every path to healing is unique. Everyone had a different thing that worked for them. Some liked meditation, others liked cooking or exercise. Diana* found starting a Tik-Tok account to be great consolation in these trying times. Diana also found that completing small goals each day, like buying milk, or walking 100 steps, gave her a sense of accomplishment that made everything easier. For her it was about “getting that positivity through, no matter what.”
Thomas found having friends around to ask them little questions (e.g. “Are you eating? Are you sleeping?”) was really helpful for staying healthy. We need to recognise the connection between mental and physical wellbeing. Sometimes doing little things like eating right can really help your mental health. Importantly, students said to always keep reaching out, and making connections.
There is only so much help a Craccum article can give you. Last year was shit, and this year is shaping up to be pretty shit too. But even though it feels like the end of the world, that doesn’t mean it is. Personally, after the interviews, I was struck by how fucking strong we are. Everyone I talked to was able to laugh, smile, and be surprisingly optimistic after the crap year we’ve had.
It might not feel like it, but we’ll get through this.
Help can be found via the University counselling sessions at [https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/on-campus/student-support/personal-support/student-health-counselling/counselling-services.html]).
If you’re in crisis call 0800 LIFELINE or text 1737.