I became estranged from my family when I was studying a master's at the University of Nottingham. Estrangement is when a person is disowned, cut off, or does not have a relationship with their family or key family members such as their parents. As the process was gradual and incredibly difficult for me, it took a huge toll on my mental health. I was seen by the university counselling service for which there was a waiting list and my counsellor didn't seem to appreciate the nuances of my situation properly. As I was only entitled to eight sessions of university counselling, I was then offered to be referred to the NHS wellbeing team by my GP for which there was a minimum three-month waiting list. I had no choice but to decline this as my master's was coming to an end and I didn't know if I was going to be staying in Nottingham.
In some ways, I'm quite lucky that I became estranged during postgraduate studies because, unlike the vast majority of estranged undergraduate students, I didn't have to worry about accommodation over the summertime and other holiday periods. Master's students tend to write their dissertations over summer so their housing needs are much better provided for. As my master's was fully-funded via savings I'd accrued over the years, I had to work part-time competing with other students for hours in my job as a student ambassador on a zero hours' contract. I had to really carefully budget my living costs and weekly food allowance, often using the university's free buses and walking a lot to save on transport costs.
As a result of balancing part-time work with my deteriorating mental health, I wasn't doing too well academically and so I was going to have to retake some exams as well as defer my dissertation- both of which were going to incur more costs. My personal tutor, a middle-aged white man, seemed to have no understanding of, or training in, pastoral issues and my GP took the side of my parents when I tried to explain how much I was struggling with my mental health as a result of emotional abuse. Due to a culmination of these things, I felt that I had no other choice but to drop out.
My story is far from unique. Research carried out by Stand Alone- the UK's leading charity that supports estranged people- shows that 79% of students surveyed become estranged before their 18th birthday. They also found that 41% of students surveyed had considered withdrawing or suspending from their course due to financial pressures, stress and mental health struggles. 14% actually had, which is a rate three times higher than the average student.
Estrangement can happen to people at any age, with one in five families in the UK affected and over five million people estranged from at least one family member. It can come with a lot of stigma, isolation, and emotional stress. Recent stats from 2014/15 show that there were 9,338 students who are 'irrevocably' estranged from their parents, but this figure is likely to be higher as there will be students who aren't recognized as estranged by Student Finance England (SFE), and this doesn't account for postgraduate students either. A key cause of estrangement is mismatched expectations of parents versus aspirations of their children, and this may result in emotional abuse. This problem is exacerbated in the case of LGBT+ people who may not have supportive parents or family members that are accepting of their identity. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggest that family rejection is a key cause of estrangement in the LGBT+ community, which is definitely true in my case.
Another key impact of estrangement is isolation and loneliness - it's so easy for estranged students to fall through the cracks of academia and feel like we're alone. Over 70% of estranged students report experiencing isolation. Students who are estranged or disowned from their family often feel unacknowledged, invisible and sensitive to judgement and stigma around their family situation. 28% of students in Stand Alone's study expressed that they did not feel comfortable accessing support within their institution, either because they did not know how to access it, or because they had a lack of faith due to previous experiences of insufficient support or stigma. There are further loopholes once an estranged student accesses the support they need as SFE require 'proof' of estrangement which can be emotionally exhausting and almost impossible to obtain, especially when requiring the cooperation of those we have become estranged from. Once SFE provide financial support, it's often inadequate for estranged students, and so we find ourselves having to work alongside our studies. Even renting in the private sector is difficult as we often cannot use our parents or relatives as a guarantor like other students can.
For these reasons, NUS LGBT+ Campaign has teamed up with Stand Alone to launch the Estranged Students Solidarity Campaign. Together we aim to eradicate the stigma surrounding estrangement and support estranged students through their studies. We want to get lots of institutions and students' unions on board with this campaign and there's so much that you can do on your campuses to support estranged students. You can get your institution to sign up to Stand Alone's Pledge, you can organize coffee mornings for estranged students, campaign to get bursaries specifically for estranged students, put on events during the holiday season, lobby accommodation services to provide rooms over the break, introduce guarantor schemes, include estranged students in your mental health campaigns, and much, much more. For more information, please take a look at our online guide to find out what you can do to remove the multiple barriers estranged students face.
Noorulann Shahid, NUS LGBT+ Officer (Open Place)