Ysée, a 22-year old business student in Nantes, loves to bake and play with her cat. She dreams of becoming a foster mother to children without families. During the pandemic, she also tried to take her life more than 22 times. On more than one occasion, she had to call the SAMU, the local 911, and spend nights in the emergency room. She was recently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and feels like the pandemic has worsened her mental health struggles.
“It is already hard for me to reach out to people and ask for help, and this forced isolation is making it even harder,” she says.
Ysée is not alone. According to an Ipsos poll, 2 out of 3 students think their mental health worsened during COVID-19. In January 2021, many students used the hashtag #etudiantsfantomes (#ghoststudents) to express their pain and anger at the government. The hashtag soon became viral, recording 70,000 tweets in one day, and launching a national movement.
Leaders of the group Etudiants Fantomes received dozens of messages on social media from students across France in need of help. According to the Ministry of Education, there is about one therapist per 30,000 students at French universities, compared to about one per 1,500 students on average at American universities. Augustin Carlioz, the head of communications for the group, recalls often trying to help students in very dire situations, who felt they had no one else to ask for help.
“We tried to help by pointing them to specialists, telling them they are not alone, but it’s hard to know what to say,” he says.
Since March 2020, most university students have been taking classes remotely even as others from kindergarten to high school students returned to in-person classes. The government cited health concerns and worried that students would party and not respect health rules, a comment that led to massive protests around France in January 2021, and a column published by the Etudiants Fantomes in the Huffington Post.
“The government’s discourse is so condescending,” says Carlioz, adding, “We are adults, we can be trusted to respect health rules.”
Christophe Tzourio, a neurologist and epidemiologist, conducted research on the mental health of students during the pandemic for the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM in French). In the 2,500 interviews Tzourio and his team conducted, students expressed concerns for their families' health during the pandemic, and anxiety about the future.
But to Tzourio, isolation is the biggest problem. He explained that young adults need to be surrounded by their peers as part of their development process. They need this time to understand themselves and others, to learn and connect with their friends.
“Taking all that away from them is incredibly cruel,” says Tzourio
Students have mobilized in several rallies around France to ask the government to reopen universities and protest the blame they feel the government is putting on them. “Politicians are wrongly convinced that young adults are to blame for spreading the virus which is completely false, the numbers do not support that,” says Christophe Tzourio, adding “studies show that universities are not centers of contagion.”
The pandemic has also hurt students financially. Many have lost their side jobs, and are struggling to pay rent and manage their expenses. Tiffany Allard, a student at the Sorbonne University, used to work as a hostess on the weekends as well as babysit. During the pandemic, her work hours have been reduced by half, and she now struggles to feed herself. She has had to go to food banks, and she is not the only student there.
“When I see a huge line of people at the [student] foodbank, I know that there is a problem,” says Allard.
The government tried to respond to these issues by offering meals for only one euro on campuses across France and providing some free therapy sessions for students who need them. But according to Tzourio, these subsidized sessions require therapists to take a pay cut from their usual rate, something few are willing to do. According to the Ministry of Education website, 1,456 therapists are currently enrolled in the program, out of about 75,000 registered therapists across the country.
But many solutions seem to have come from students themselves. Student associations have organized food distribution campaigns and created their own mental health hotline: Nightline. Every night, at the time when loneliness hits the most, 150 student volunteers receive calls from their peers who need someone to speak to. According to an article in Le Figaro, Nightline receives about 200 calls a week, the maximum they are able to field, and many chats.
Ysée herself started an Instagram account “Point Virgule Initiative” (“Semicolon Initiative”), where she talks about her struggles and victories and tries to help others struggling with mental health issues.
“I know what it is like to fight against your darkest side, and I want to make sure no one has to go through this,” she says. “I want to bring a little sun everyday into my follower’s lives.”
During the pandemic, universities were closed, then open for first years only, then opened for one day a week, and now closed again. The education Minister Frédérique Vidal announced this week that universities would reopen in person in September 2021, provided the COVID-19 situation does not get worse.
“I am happy about this news,(…) but the pandemic has brought to light deeper problems about the condition of students in France,” says Augustin Carlioz, adding, “so far no structural changes have been put in place to address these issues.”