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A Quarter Of Disabled Students Feel Isolated During Freshers’ Week

Freshers’ week is supposed to be a fun and exciting time, but for disabled students at UK universities it can be the quite different.

Half of those with disabilities have reported struggling with their mental health during their studies.

According to Student Beans’ latest study of over 2,000 students:

  • Over half (52.1%) of disabled students admitted to struggling with mental health during their studies (vs 40.0% of those who do not identify as disabled)
  • Students with disabilities are twice as like to feel like nobody cares about them during freshers week (13.9% vs 6.3%)
  • A quarter (24.1%) of disabled students felt isolated and lonely during freshers (vs 13.9% of those who do not identify as disabled)
  • Two-fifths (39.2%) of disabled students who have struggled with their mental health at university did not seek help

Freshers’ week is the first week of university, designed to introduce you to all of the fun that uni has to offer and help you to make friends and settle in with your new surroundings.

While universities will heavily promote a wide range of freshers’ events that will be happening during both the day and night, it’s no secret that for a lot of students freshers’ week will revolve around alcohol, partying and intense socialising. This can leave students who don’t drink, who have difficulties with accessibility, or who are struggling with their mental health feeling lost or out of place.

For students with disabilities, freshers’ week can be a challenging time, with universities seemingly not doing enough to look out for their disabled students and running inclusive events. With little consideration of how to cater to those with disabilities or how to make the events suitable and enjoyable for everyone, these groups can be left feeling isolated and lonely.

What is freshers’ week like for disabled students?

Disabled students are twice as likely to feel lonely or isolated during their freshers period with over one-in-ten agreeing that it felt like no one cared about how they were doing during freshers.

When asked about the freshers’ week experience, 25-year-old Bee, who has disabilities including Fibromyalgia, Joint Hypermobility Syndrome, Inflammatory Arthritis and Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, said:

‘I remember feeling really anxious – especially around meeting and interacting with new people. There is also added anxiety around disclosing my disabilities to new people, due to fear of how they will react, as most of my disabilities are invisible – there is always the fear that they will react badly.’

For students like Bee with hidden disabilities, meeting new people can be an anxiety-inducing time and many of the events run by universities fail to acknowledge hidden disabilities and the additional support that these students may need.

I wish the University had been able to provide me with the support they advertised me. I feel this would have benefitted me a lot because I wasn’t in any kind of therapy at the time and was really struggling, and definitely needed more support than I received. 

I feel like having more events tailored to disabled students would foster a bigger sense of community which I feel would have a positive impact on mental health.’

What is being done to help students with disabilities who are struggling with their mental health while at university?

Unfortunately, these struggles go past the initial welcome period of freshers’ week, with half of disabled students reporting struggling with their mental health throughout their time at university, and two-fifths admitting to not seeking help despite facing struggles.

Speaking about their time during the first year of university, Bee says:

‘As part of my disability requirements, I had a mentor who helped me significantly. She would help me with organisation, applying for extensions if I needed and lots of other things. She would help me with anything I needed if she could.

‘I remember there were a few times when I broke down to her and she would put me into contact with the University’s mental health teams. I sought some help from them, but mostly I didn’t because I felt they didn’t quite understand my access needs.

‘For example, they once told me about a therapy/course they did for students who were experiencing both mental health difficulties and chronic pain. However, when it came to letting me onto it they said no because I am diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder. This made me feel excluded and like I wasn’t deserving of support so I eventually stopped seeking it.’

While universities do have teams in place to help disabled students and those who are struggling with their mental health, Bee admits that it’s often not enough. They raise the issue that universities don’t consider those with both physical and mental health difficulties and the level of support that is needed, and that the adequate level of support isn’t always available.

Universities are not always able to provide what is promised and the level of support that is available isn’t enough which can leave students feeling excluded, leaving them to suffer in silence.

What can universities do to support students with disabilities through freshers’ week and beyond?

It’s clear that changes need to be made in order to make universities a more inclusive place for those with disabilities, from the very first weeks of uni all the way to the end.

Reflecting on university, Bee said:

I think often, University’s don’t bear in mind students with both mental and physical health difficulties, including chronic pain. Chronic pain and physical disabilities have a massive impact on mental health, and vice versa, but often this isn’t taken into account when supporting students with mental health difficulties. I would have definitely liked to have seen more consideration into students with both mental and physical health disabilities.

‘Being disabled definitely affected my life as a student because I experience a lot of chronic pain. This meant that often I felt unable to do my work, and had to apply for a lot of extensions – which ultimately made me feel like a failure despite my knowledge and belief that disabled students deserve to have their access needs met.

Things that universities can do to create a more inclusive environment for students with disabilities:

  • Review the events that are running over the freshers’ period- see what changes can be made to cater to those with disabilities, both visible and invisible
  • Run events tailored specifically to those with disabilities to foster a sense of community and help to make disabled students feel visible. This is also an opportunity for disabled students to network with other students who have the same or similar disabilities or mental health issues and to feel less alone.
  • Look at and review the services that are available to disabled students- making sure that needs are being met and an adequate level of care can be provided.
  • Ensure the careers department can provide adequate support for graduating students, by signposting inclusive employers and empowering disabled students throughout the job-hunting process.

With two fifths of disabled students saying that they did not seek help for their mental health during uni, universities should be going out of their way to reach out to students and make it clear that support is there. Whether by assigning or offering a support worker to all students who have disclosed that they have a disability, or by heavily promoting the mental health services and support that is available from the first day that students start at university.

If you’re struggling with your mental health while you’re at uni here are some helpful resources and avenues you can turn to:

Remember to check the support teams and recourses that are available at your specific university and see if you’re utilising all of the support that is available. You can also contact your local GP to explore mental health support in your local area and see what is available on the NHS.

There is no shame in seeking help for your mental health, and everyone should be able to access the same level of care and attentive support if they need it. Hopefully, universities across the UK will work to improve these services and create more inclusivity and safe spaces for students with disabilities, both visible and invisible as well as providing adequate mental health support.

University is for everyone and to make real progress, universities need to keep disabled students front of mind to create an environment that is safe and enjoyable for all.

Methodology: Student Beans surveyed 2,105 16-24 year-olds in July 2022, of which 195 classed themselves as disabled.

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