By Cornall Hirsch-
Mental health week is a good time to remember all those who suffered with mental health issues during the lockdown, or whose mental health issues were exacerbated during the lockdown.
I moved to Leeds for my studies in September of 2019. As an American student who chose to study in the U.K. I was proud and optimistic to have been given the chance to study at a globally elite university. I am speaking about the University of Leeds.
Upon arriving, I encountered a vibrant social life populated by diverse and friendly students from around the globe.
The house parties before the pandemic were simply amazing. The venues and atmosphere of Hyde Park, Call Lane and Headingley all contributed to the unique and renowned social experience that studying in Leeds was known for.
University was supposed to be one of the best experiences of my life, and I was looking forward to making the most of it at Leeds.
Yet suddenly the entire world changed drastically over the span of a fortnight last March, and with the rapid spreading of the Covid-19 virus across the UK, universities across the UK and the rest of the educational apparatus shut down, and waves of students were sent back to their homes under a pall of fear and uncertainty.
The transition in the lifestyle of students was drastic. It changed from going out to parties, clubbing and exploring the city with friends to being locked inside their flats in merely a week’s time.
The recurring negative news on television and in the press was troubling for the mental health of many students. The pressure of a national lockdown, on top of the academic challenge of having to continue studies online without the social experience that typically accompanies a university experience, was a big challenge to the mental health of many students.
News of the ease to lockdown restrictions began to lift spirits, but this was still amidst the rigorous challenges that come with exam season at a competitive university.
Leeds University Philosophy student, Michel Jason, 20, shared the feeling of utter disillusion with the restriction on his social life. He said: ‘’It was a nightmare seeing our social life and university experience completely dashed due to the pandemic.
It might have been necessary to a degree, but it was extremely unhealthy for my mental state of mind. The media was generally depressing, and the blame put on students for the spread of the virus was not only unfair, but sure to make student life a practical hell. I began to realise my mental health was taking a turn for the worse.
‘A few female students with whom I had planned a date, were suddenly pulling back, making my university experience become a dreadful one. Some of my mates were fortunate enough to have girls who were less concerned meet them at their apartment, making me ashamedly jealous.
The option of visiting my parents was absent because they were as worried of catching the virus as I was of potentially giving the virus to them, if I was asymptomatic, since the media kept saying students were spreading the virus. Observing green space became somewhat therapeutic for me’’.
Another affected student- third year psychology student, Sarah said explained :‘’ My mental health went downhill throughout the lockdown. Concentrating on my academics was difficult because the intensity of the bad news on television often made my heart race, and I wondered what the whole point of studying was if a deadly virus could ruin it anytime, and I could not enjoy my time at university.
I felt robbed of my once in a life time experience
I felt robbed of my once in a life time experience.
Fraction Of Experience
Anyone who has been to university will attest to the fact that academics make up only a fraction of the experience. Socialization with other students from all over the world is crucial to one’s development in becoming a thoughtful and informed global citizen just as much as the readings provided by one’s course.
In this bleak moment when most of our favourite things became illegal, many students turned their gaze outdoors in order to cope with this new reality. The illegality of enjoying life seemed unfair, especially without evidence that we were spreading the virus, but I accepted the fact it was necessary for the overall good of everyone
Many students were able to rediscover their love for nature, particularly hiking. These green spaces helped them cope with one of the most difficult years of their lives.
Our generation was both the last to have our early childhoods unscathed by the onslaught of portable technology, but also the first to be enraptured by social media.
I’ve watched those around me (myself included) move our lives onto Instagram, Snapchat and most commonly Facebook. While we still enact our lives in the physical world, almost everyone with an internet connection has shifted their gaze to the virtual realm. I did so as well before the pandemic – my mind was dominated by thoughts like “
This will look great on my Instagram” and “If only I can get this on camera it will be amazing!” My actions and desires became more intent on manufacturing content for my friends to watch online than actually pursuing the things which made me happy.
Inaccurate Self Portrayal
As an American studying in Britain, I became obsessed with portraying my life as a fantastic story for my friends back home to observe. I became petty because I thought I could derive some sort of satisfaction from bragging to the people I went to high school with that I’d moved to another country to attend an elite university.
Instead, what was meant to be a brilliant experience degenerated into a fabricated reality. I was living in the virtual rather than the physical, and the pandemic provided an abrupt but necessary wake up call.
Students became more claustrophobic than previously, myself included. The stay-at-home order singlehandedly mangled young minds: our bedroom became our prison cell, my soul began to long for open and green pastures. Many students combatted their boredom through nature.
“I feel like before the pandemic, nobody really paid attention to green spaces. I think because we were forced to stay inside for months, now we’ve realised how nice they actually are.” -Moh Syed, 19, Business
“My appreciation for nature has grown thanks to the activities that it made available to me. I’ve gone to many more places now than I would have if not for Covid-19… I think that after the pandemic I will definitely be going on some more big [nature oriented] adventures!” – Ben Pomeroy, 20, Computer Science specialised in AI.
The first of the spaces I explored was already familiar to me; the park known as Woodhouse Moor. The park is situated between the university and the aforementioned student neighbourhoods, making the Moor an ideal place to be enjoyed by those who inhabit the centre of the city. As a result it is swamped with students and Leeds residents alike whenever the Yorkshire sun decides to poke its head from between the clouds.
The park is an apt microcosm of the diversity of the city: screaming children run awry on one corner while adjacently spliffs are rolled at the skatepark. A steady stream of runners and bikers circumnavigate the green speedily, while hordes of students swarm the massive lawns laden with bluetooth speakers and overpriced ciders from nearby corner shops.
Hyde Park FC, a local football club which a friend of mine plays for, regularly place out their cones and create a pitch along the north lawn, while to the south, the tennis courts are seldom empty. The close location of the space makes it accessible to students and residents alike.
Because of its accessibility, my friend and I spent nearly the entire summer of 2020 there, observing the harmonious chaos that the park gives home. My friend hailed from Holland, and as a result of our internationality, we were seldom able to go home throughout the pandemic.
“My interaction with nature has massively increased. I never used to go sit in parks at all before the pandemic, but now we do it all the time.” -Alex Limb, 20, Civil Engineering
We coped by making the park our second home- catching as many rays as we could in the warm summer days. Coming to the U.K. from a place that has vibrant and diverse seasons was a shock for myself, as well as many other international students.
Moor comes from a small beach town that is incredibly hot in the summer, often between temperatures of 28-33 degrees Celsius. Thus coming to Leeds was an abrupt change for me, but it has made me appreciate the sunny days with an increased fervour. Because I spent so much time inside during the first lockdown and it is seldom warm in Leeds, I have developed a newfound appreciation for the sun that I simply took for granted before.
The second place that helped myself and my fellow students to cope with our new reality is known as the Hollies. The Hollies are a part of the Meanwood Valley Trail, which consist of seven miles of trails leading from central Leeds into a wooded area that sits among the city’s northern suburbs.
Whether it was for a solitary hike by myself or an outing with housemates, the Hollies provided a much needed relief to the hustle and bustle of the city.
The trails boast several natural edifices which helped distract me from the state of the outside world: majestic miniature waterfalls, enchanting walkways that weave in and out of the foliage, and peculiar rock structures which reinvigorated a whimsical curiosity that I’d left behind in my childhood.
Going into the Hollies provided me a beautiful escape from the urban environment of my adulthood, and I was transported back into my youth underneath the canopy of the trees. I certainly did not expect to spend my second year at university exploring this space, but it provided me a refuge from the new difficulties which had intruded into my life.
Recognising this place as a refuge, not just for my mind but for the wildlife which calls it home, has made it paramount to me that these places need not only protected but expanded.
The unique majesty of the Yorkshire Dales was one I had heard about prior to my living in the UK.
However, the pictures yielded in a quick Google search were incomparable to the vista that awaited us. My housemates and I piled into the car amid the brief spell of hot days which graced Leeds this March, eager to escape the city entirely and explore.
We drove to Appletreewick, a small village not far into the park, to begin our trek. I’ve encountered many mountains before in my life- I’ve been lucky to have learned to ski at the ripe age of six.
Yet actually standing in the foot of the valley, with two massive mounds of earth hundreds of meters in height flanking our path was truly a sight to behold. My breath was stolen out of my lungs, and the sheer size of the valley around me enraptured my sight.
As I was mostly unable to leave Leeds for the year due to the pandemic, experiencing the majesty of nature in her purest form filled me again with a sense of wonder.
I’d spent the last year cursing nature and the coronavirus- it had brought unparalleled destruction to not just my life but the world as a whole. Yet nature is just like anything else in life- it may be beneficial, it may be malignant, but above all it is indifferent. While the virus had brought an ugly terror to light, the Dales was a welcome reminder of what beauty life can entail.
Learning to focus on this beauty has taught me a lesson I would never have learned sitting in a lecture theatre.
Nature As Entertainment
As normal activities of students became impossible, many turned to nature for entertainment as well as personal growth. Hiking through the Dales taught was a way of overcoming the bleak appearance of life at the time.
Spanish and Philosophy student, Lorcan Knight, 20, shared this sentiment. “I found myself walking my dog a lot more because I had little else to do, and I started to appreciate nature a lot more. It’s so entertaining to watch animals and fauna go about their day [in nature], and it’s certainly made me feel more connected to it.
I think the connection comes from simply appreciating it and acknowledging it more. Flowers and plants just seem so much more magnificent to me now than they did before lockdown!”
Gabija Gyrbovski, 21, Media and Communication student said:
“After the pandemic began I’ve noticed I go on many more walks just to get out of the house and to get some exercise. I made my aim to reach 10k steps per day, which I’ve achieved thus far.” Gabija Gyrbovski, 21.
The virus ripped my cell phone out of my hand, which forced my gaze from pretty landscapes on Instagram instead to seeking out the real thing.
And as I experienced nature in these places, it became paramount to me that they must be protected. I am merely another voice in a massive chorus of activists, scientists and conservationists bearing the same message: we will regret neglecting our home.
The earth is on fire; but most of us just can’t see it yet. My home state of California has been on fire for the last few decades, and it has gone from bad to worse. We simply need to do more.
Many students were forced to look to nature for stimulation. These green spaces helped us cope with a world turned upside down, and now that they have, I feel both indebted as well as protective of them.
And now that the pandemic is finally coming to a close, I cannot go back to the way I was before. Instead of putting the phone back into my hand to enter the digital space, I’m replacing it with a compass to explore the physical. And I’m not going to look back at the person I once was.
“I’ve realised that you don’t need modern entertainment like cinemas and clubs to have fun. Things which are killing green spaces, like pollution and misuse, are not needed nearly as much as the spaces themselves. I now believe that nature fully brings about happiness!”- Ezme Brack, 19, English Language and Linguistics
With the lockdown now eased, and news that the pandemic is virtually over in the UK, I can only hope that we won’t go down this dark road again in the future.
Yet through this tribulation there is an undeniable silver lining. The youth of today have been instilled with a new appreciation and respect for the outdoors, one which may have never occurred if the pandemic had not come to head. Perhaps this respect will yield the results our planet so desperately needs.