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College might once have offered an escape for vulnerable students - Covid-19 has changed that

With lectures moving largely online, students with a tough home life may find themselves with few good options.

Trinity College Dublin and other college campuses may look a lot emptier come September.
Trinity College Dublin and other college campuses may look a lot emptier come September.
Image: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/PA Images

GOING TO COLLEGE for the first time can be stressful in normal times.

When it comes in the middle of a pandemic, it’s particularly difficult. Harder still is the thought of virtual lectures for those for whom leaving home might have been a vital lifeline. 

For students coming from a difficult or abusive home, the thought of escaping to college might have sustained them through the final years of secondary school. Or for LGBT students not yet out, third-level education might have offered a safer space to explore their identity. 

Now, as the Covid-19 pandemic forces Irish colleges to move largely online and the idea of renting a home in an unfamiliar city makes less economic sense, many vulnerable young people are seeing an escape route shut off. 

“I think going away to college or away to work can be hugely important for LGBT young people,” according to Moninne Griffith, CEO of BeLonG To. “Especially those who aren’t out at home or are out and aren’t living in a supportive space.”

The organisation, which supports young LGBT people, has found that during the pandemic many of those they work with have faced loneliness or mental health difficulties. 

A survey of 294 LGBT young people, conducted during the most severe Covid-19 restrictions, found that 93% were struggling with anxiety, stress or depression, while 48% regarded their mental health as “bad” or “very bad”.

And while that story isn’t the same for all LGBT young people – and nor is college a rosy experience for many – there is certainly a sense that some may face frustrated horizons if they’re forced to remain at home due to a combination of prohibitive rents, lack of job options and a largely online learning experience 

“Once they come out, it tends to decrease anxiety and stress. We always tell young people to come out when they’re ready and it’s safe for them to do it,” Griffith says. Even for older people, college can still feel like a safe place for many. 

“When colleges are open, they make an escape back to college,” she says. “You can never know what’s been going on in somebody’s home unless they share it with you.”

One important, annual LGBT event for college students is already being forced to adapt to the pandemic – the Union of Students in Ireland-run Pink Training, which typically sees hundreds of LGBT students from across the country gather together for a weekend of workshops. The union told TheJournal.ie that it would be going ahead, but “within the public health guidance”

Bella Fitzpatrick, the Executive Director of LGBT charity ShoutOut, said that many secondary school students “are simply white-knuckling their way through school until college when they can have more freedoms to be themselves”. 

“For LGBTQ+ students who are unsure what the future holds for them we recommend finding your community online where possible”, she said. “Mostly we want those in this position to know that this too shall pass.”

Colleges are being asked to prepare for an upsurge in demand for counselling among those trying to study in the most difficult of home circumstances – and are being asked to properly invest in these resources. 

For many students facing the stress of new, complex subjects and the anxieties that come with college, difficulties at home can only make things worse. 

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A spokesperson for Trinity College Dublin’s Student Counselling Service told TheJournal.ie that they had been contacted by students who are “living in difficult home situations and we are doing our best to support them with a variety of intervention”. 

The college has offered support since the college closed in March in response to the pandemic. 

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“We are also planning to deliver a mix of online and in-person counselling and group therapy programmes when the new academic term begins on 29 September. Workshops on a variety of mental health topics will be delivered online throughout the year,” the spokesperson said. 

Cliodhna currently lives in Wicklow and is hoping to study politics and international relations at University College Dublin. She knows what it’s like to have to move away from home in Kilkenny, having previously studied a PLC course in Dundrum College. 

“When I lived in Kilkenny my home life wouldn’t have been as great,” she said. “My home was a place where I didn’t feel I could be myself. I was facing a lot of mental health difficulties.”

Now she says she’s in a more “loving and caring environment”. But she says that living with a tough home life makes studying much more difficult. Going to college, she added, “is about independence”. 

A lack of it can only worsen mental health issues, she says. But she also has the more standard college-age concerns, albeit heightened now by the pandemic. From trying to learn while wearing a mask or even meeting new people, Cliodhna is finding it hard to imagine what college will look like. 

“It’ll be difficult to make friends while you’re in that setting,” she says. “In terms of societies, I don’t know how that’ll work.”

Caoimhe, who lives in Lucan, is hoping to go to Trinity College Dublin to study law and political science. 

She suffers from anxiety and applied through the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) scheme. “In any year without Covid-19 going to college for the first time is difficult and anxiety creating,” she says. 

“What’s our normal going be? There’s no one we can look to.”

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