Around the world, international students, like many others, are missing out on spending Christmas with friends and loved ones as the pandemic puts a damper on celebrations.

“Huge change in terms of not going to school and seeing everyone, going to regular events and dinners, study groups, and not going to work obviously,” said one international student, speaking with Sveriges Radio about staying in the country over Christmas.

“Every day feels exactly the same since March. I just wake up, get on Zoom, do stuff on Google Drive, basically every day. It is definitely way more isolating.”

“Every day feels exactly the same since March”

Platforms like Zoom are likely to play an important part of Christmas this year.

Universities and student unions have been hosting online parties this month, with digital activities taking over from usual themed trips to German Christmas markets, Santa’s Grottos.

Glasgow Caledonian University Students’ Association said it was hosting three online events per week over a three week period for students, including Christmas jumper competitions, bake offs, bingo and quizzes, with food delivery vouchers as prizes.

“We know how difficult it must be for students not going home this festive season and how isolating it can be with family many miles away, which is why we are urging students who are home and are surrounded by friends and family to jump on to one or more of our activities and be the friendly face of GCU for those who are on their own,” said Susan Docherty, president of GCU Students’ Association.

Meanwhile, student accommodation providers City Block are encouraging students to have a “Merry Flatmas” by offering tips on decorating their accommodation, and suggesting they organise Secret Santas and Christmas-themed pub quizzes.

“Even though Christmas is set to look quite different this year, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have a fantastic time with your flatmates this holiday season,” they said.

At the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, volunteers have created a support network for students staying on or near campus during the break.

“We have made some hampers to give out to international students”

“We have made some hampers to give out to international students in Swansea, Carmarthen and Lampeter as they are staying in the UK rather than flying home this Christmas,” explained Elisha Hughes, a fine art graduate and fellow at Swansea College of Art UWTSD.

“The university’s international staff members have been doing an incredible job, providing daily support to all of the international students. We have been hosting weekly coffee mornings to create a support network.”

However, despite universities and other groups doing their best, even the cheeriest attempts at joviality don’t negate the fact many international students will be alone for Christmas – and there are increasing calls for more attention to be paid to the mental health impact of months of prolonged isolation.

Some students have reported only seeing other people while doing their laundry, and for many even being able to go out over the break will mean little given that they haven’t had the opportunity to get to know their classmates or make friends since arriving at university.

At a recent Australian IEAA conference, attendees were told that “the current system does not work for international students” in terms of mental health, with the pandemic having highlighted significant gaps in the availability and suitability of support.

Multiple surveys have shown a deterioration in mental health among both international and domestic students – as well as the general population at large.

A survey this month from the National Union of Students in the UK revealed that 52% say their mental health has deteriorated or been affected negatively by Covid-19 despite efforts to increase the support available this year.

“It should be no surprise that the majority of students have experienced deteriorating mental health as a result of the pandemic,” said Larissa Kennedy, NUS national president.

“Students deserve better than their treatment this term”

“Students deserve better than their treatment this term. It is time for governments to fund university, college and NHS mental health services to ensure all students can get the support they require. Students’ unions also need greater investment to continue to provide essential services to students,” she continued.

“Covid-19 has not had an equal impact on all… There was already a mental health crisis on campus that has been exacerbated by Covid-19. To alleviate this crisis students need greater financial support, accessible learning spaces and safe accommodation.”

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