“One student described how the isolation period on campus could be “profoundly lonely” and that, “There have been days that have taken a toll on mental health.””
“First year students, who by all rights should be swirling in a whirlwind of free wine and pizza from societies, pouring their heart out to a new best friend as they stumble back to Dartry from town, are instead restricted from the mill of new people that typically makes first year so exciting”
““The fact that we are all cooped up at the moment can take a toll on our mental health,” Keogh said. “The most critical method in tackling that is social connection.””
In a normal year, the strain on the students’ union welfare team is immense. The non-academic needs of 20,000 students are vast, and range from financial assistance to accommodation needs, to helping students seek assistance for mental health issues. Undertaking this under the Covid-19 pandemic is a mammoth task.
First year students, who by all rights should be swirling in a whirlwind of free wine and pizza from societies, pouring their heart out to a new best friend as they stumble back to Dartry from town, are instead restricted from the mill of new people that typically makes first year so exciting. Many of these students will need help and guidance from the students’ union to make the most out of a constrained year and settle into the rhythm of college life in unusual times. The usual circus of the Freshers’ tents in Front Square, now empty, helps orientate those starting college and gives them a feel for the college community. In the context of this isolation, scenes like those in Galway on September 28, when hundreds of students, many of them freshers, gathered at Spanish Arch to socialise and connect with each other, seem almost inevitable.
Students from countries which are considered “at risk” and staying in Trinity accommodation were required to quarantine in their accomodation for two weeks before the start of the semester. A meal service was provided for students staying on campus or at Trinity Hall, but undoubtedly, two weeks in a student apartment impacted on the wellbeing of some students. Speaking to Trinity News, one student described how the isolation period on campus could be “profoundly lonely” and that, “There have been days that have taken a toll on mental health.”
Trinity News spoke to Leah Keogh, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) Welfare officer, in a brief gap in her packed schedule. As well as leading campaigns on topics such as sexual health, consent and drug policy, Keogh also handles a large volume of casework, which involves students coming to her with personal issues that range from mental help problems to financial and accommodation needs. However, Keogh takes this workload in her stride, saying “I love casework, and I have a huge interest in the policy behind it as well, so this is the perfect role for me I think”.
Keogh says the two issues that take up most of her day are accommodation and finance. “With the current system of blended or hybrid learning, students are asking me, ‘Do I need accommodation in Dublin this year?’ and it’s so hard to answer that because no one knows what’s going to happen this year.” Some students are even wondering whether securing short-term accommodation is a better option than a long term lease for a college year in Dublin that may or may not happen. The SU runs a Facebook group called Accommodation Support, in which students can exchange information and listings on available rooms and apartments.
“The fact that we are all cooped up at the moment can take a toll on our mental health, and the most critical method in tackling that is social connection”
With regards to finance, Keogh frequently gets contacted about the €191.75 charge students are required to pay in addition to tuition, and whether it has to be paid this year, given that most students are off-campus currently. She also helps students work their way through the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) process and provides practical financial assistance to students in financial difficulty through the Student Hardship fund. In particular need of assistance are healthcare workers on placement, who cannot currently work a part-time job.
Keogh speaks about how “the fact that we are all cooped up at the moment can take a toll on our mental health, and the most critical method in tackling that is social connection”. Fostering a feeling of community within the College is a key aim of hers. Similarly isolation is a risk factor for addiction, and it is perfectly likely that addictive patterns will emerge for students stuck in their accommodation. Leah is releasing videos with the SU with advice on topics such as addiction. She has also worked with the global Students for Sensible Drug Policy to set up a specific Trinity branch, and draft a new College drug policy focused on harm reduction. “The fact that we are all cooped up at the moment can take a toll on our mental health,” Keogh said. “The most critical method in tackling that is social connection.”
She also intends to make consent a focus of her tenure and has met with Minister of Higher Education Simon Harris to help devise a strategy to eliminate sexual violence and harassment on campus. Trinity is this year going to implement this strategy, aiming to totally eliminate sexual violence on campus and facilities. “When we take young people and house them, we have a duty of care to those students, to keep them safe,” Keogh said.
For students who are struggling with their mental health under the current circumstances, Keogh recommends keeping a routine, separating their study space from their living space if they can, and by reaching out to and connecting with others. She urges students to use the resources that are available if they need help. These include the Trinity Counselling Service, Niteline, the new 50808 texting support service, or indeed Keogh herself.