Why so many disabled freshers feel lonely and isolated at university

New research from Student Beans, a company comparing and advertising deals for students, has revealed that a quarter of disabled students feel isolated during their first year of university.

The research shows that over half (52%) of students with disabilities have struggled with their mental health during university, while one in four (24%) admitted to feeling isolated and lonely during freshers week.

It found that the young disabled people who took part in the survey were twice as likely than their non-disabled peers to feel lonely and like nobody cared about them throughout the Ffeshers period.

One of these students is 25-year-old Bee, who has disabilities including fibromyalgia, joint hypermobility syndrome, inflammatory arthritis and emotionally unstable personality disorder.

‘During Freshers Week, I remember feeling really anxious – especially around meeting and interacting with new people,’ Bee revealed. ‘I wish the university had been able to provide me with the support they advertised for me – meaning, the therapy/course on chronic pain and mental health.

‘I think often, universities 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.’ 

Bethany, 23, had a similar experience while studying politics and sociology in 2017. She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I have a bunch of different medical conditions, including ankylosing spondylitis and, for me, that results in full body chronic pain as it’s a form of inflammatory spinal arthritis. But, unfortunately, the pain doesn’t just affect my back.’

When she went to university, she was already grappling with being very recently diagnosed with a condition you’re not expecting to deal with as a teenager, and the culture at university made things harder.

‘I was already going into university struggling with chronic pain and being really worried about how that’s going to impact my university life, my friends, my social life, my studying abilities,’ Bethany shares. ‘But then you have to grapple with the fact that every time you say to someone “I have arthritis” they’re gonna say, you know, “what are you 60?” and that’s really lonely. It’s really, really hard.’

Bethany also found the expectation to fit into university nightlife culture to be a lonely experience, explaining: ‘I didn’t go to a particularly clubby university, but there was a nightlife. And it was something that I wasn’t really fully able to get like to do every single night because it would really hurt.

‘So there were a lot of nights where I was kind of on my own because I physically couldn’t do what my friends were doing and that is lonely.’

Like Bee, she thinks universities are not equipped enough to support disabled students. While Bethany’s university was helpful in supporting her with academic challenges, she claims everything else went unaddressed.

‘Universities don’t have the support in place for disabled students in making sure that there’s accessible options for social life,’ Bethany tells us. ‘If you’re lucky, you go to a university which is really helpful in making sure disabled students can learn properly, but as for the social aspects of university, you’re just forgotten about.

‘Disabled students are sort of left to deal with that and I think that can be really irresponsible. You can get incredibly depressed and lonely, and I did.

‘You feel like you’re on the sidelines, like nobody understands what you’re going through. And for me, I was still learning how to live in a disabled body [while dealing with all of this].’

Bethany wishes universities had mental health support facilities specially trained for students with disabilities, as it would have made her transition to university life ‘a lot easier’.

Bethany remembers feeling really isolated while trying to tell flatmates to be patient with her around her disability.

‘I hobbled into my kitchen because I couldn’t really walk and I’d been stuck in my very small bedroom and explained to my flatmates who I shared a bathroom with that showering would take me a really long time at the moment,’ she recalls.

‘They were nice about it and it was fine, but it was really scary.’ 

Film student Rose, 20, felt similarly in her first year of university, having suffered with post traumatic stress disorder and stress-induced chronic pain during her first year at university.

She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I lived in halls with about 22 other students. There were times where I hadn’t slept in weeks during university and flatmates expected me to be on their energy level.’

Rose had to frequently explain to flatmates that catching up on sleep she missed was a priority which, felt ‘awkward and sometimes embarrassing’. 

‘I felt like a burden all the time,’ she adds. ‘It also seemed like every able-bodied person on campus was completely uneducated and misinformed about disabilities. I wish universities would share information with students so I don’t have to explain everything to everyone every ten minutes.’

Senior therapist Sally Baker says these feelings amongst disabled first year students are unfortunately common.

‘One of my patients was a student who had type one diabetes and her accomodation had been asked in advance by the parents to arrange a fridge to store her shots, and when they turned up for her to start uni, there wasn’t a fridge,’ she notes. ‘There was a microwave, because they got it wrong.’

Sally notes it’s this type of ‘ineptitude and lack of care’ that can so often lead disabled students to feeling lonely and othered.

‘It’s very common response to internalise issues and make them feel that it’s their fault, their problem,’ she explains. ‘That adds to shame and disassociation.

‘But what disabled students and the universities they go to need to remember is that this is a duty of care. If disabled students feel abandoned or let down, it’s the university that has abandoned let them down and it’s the university’s issue to resolve.

‘All students deserve the same treatment. If they’re not receiving that, then it is not their fault and they shouldn’t be made to feel it’s their fault. It’s the university’s lack of care.’

Sally explains that even when shame or discrimination that leads to loneliness comes from other students, not the university itself, this is still the responsibility of the university to fix.

‘If able-bodied students are making disabled students feel that they can’t join in, that’s part of the ethos of the university. That needs to be called into question because it’s not acceptable for institutions to enable that level of disregard.’ 

It’s easy for disabled students to feel isolated and  blame themselves but Sally says ‘they need to interrupt that path, because this is not about them’.

‘They have every right to be there and to fully enjoy their academic experience and if they’re not able to fully access or enjoy their academic experience, changes need to be made,’ Sally tells us. She adds that students of all abilities are consumers (who pay a huge amount, too!) and deserve the services provided to them, socialising included.

‘Start making demands, complaining, and raising awareness,’ she says.

Bethany agrees, adding: ‘It’s so important that disabled students speak up and advocate for themselves in higher education so they can have an equal experience, because we do get forgotten about.’ 

To make things easier, less lonely and more fun, she recommends trying to find students in a similar position.

She adds: ‘University is a learning curve in all sorts of different ways and you’re not alone if you’re feeling confused or lonely.

‘Find social things to do that work within any limits or boundaries you might have and just remember that it’s going to be alright.’

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