Tuesday 03-10-2017 - 08:22
As we kick off our campaign to get better support for estranged students, LGBT+ Officer, Noorulann Shahid joins other students to tell us more about the issue at hand and share their stories.
Download our guide on supporting estranged students now.
Estrangement is a huge issue affecting students – impacting on their mental health, finances and sense of belonging. 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. This can happen to people at any age, with 1 in 5 families in the UK affected and over 5 million people estranged from at least one family member. Estrangement can come with a lot of stigma, isolation, and emotional stress.
The NUS LGBT+ Campaign has joined forces with the UK’s leading charity supporting estranged people, Stand Alone, to campaign for better support for estranged students. We want to raise awareness of the barriers estranged students face and encourage students’ unions and activists to do more to support them.
Research carried out by Stand Alone shows that 79% of students surveyed become estranged before their 18th birthday. They also found that 41% of students surveyed had considered withdrawing from their course due to financial pressures, stress and mental health struggles, with fourteen percent actually dropping out, a figure three times higher than the average student. Statistics from 2014-15 show that there were 9,338 students who were ‘irrevocably’ estranged from their parents, but this figure is likely to be higher as there are students who aren’t recognized as estranged by Student Finance England (SFE), and nor does this figure account for postgraduate students.
To better understand the challenges that estranged students face LGBT+ Campaign has been asking them to share their experiences with us;
I became estranged from my family when I was studying for an MA at the University of Nottingham. As the process was gradual and incredibly difficult, 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 couldn’t understand the nuances of my situation properly. I was only entitled to eight counselling sessions, after which I was offered a referral 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 MA was coming to an end and I didn’t know if I was going to be staying in the city.
In a way, I was lucky I became estranged during postgraduate study because I didn’t need to worry about accommodation over the summertime and other holiday periods, as Master’s students tend to write their dissertations over summer. Accommodation over holidays is a huge concern for estranged undergraduate students. Though my MA was fully-funded via savings I’d accrued over the years, I had to work part-time, competing with other students for work in my job as a student ambassador on a zero hours’ contract. I had to carefully budget my living costs and weekly food allowance, often using the university’s free buses or walking to save on travel costs.
Due to 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 me more costs. My personal tutor was a middle-aged white man who seemed to have no understanding or training of 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.
---Noorulann Shahid, LGBT+ Officer (Open Place)
People think that estrangement is this all or nothing thing. But throughout my time as a student I have been through periods of good contact with my family, of no contact, and often somewhere in between. Families are complicated and it was difficult to keep informing the university and Student Finance of every change, especially when they could happen so quickly. It became an administrative burden in its own right.
In my first year I got in touch with Student Finance to say that I was estranged. They told me I needed proof and suggested I get a letter from my parents saying they had cut me off. I had to ask my sister to get the letter from my parents, it took ages for them to agree to it but when I finally sent the letter off as evidence they got back to me saying that extra funding had been denied on the grounds that if I were able to get a letter, I was technically ‘in contact’ with them. I was damned either way. I really struggled for money that year – this was when I started doing sex work to fund food and rent payments. I found it really difficult to get a regular job because no-one would want to employ a trans person. The next year I actually married a friend of mine so that her income would count as my family income rather than my parents’. This gave me a bit more financial stability but I was still basically surviving on income from sex work for most of my undergraduate studies. It was so frustrating that I basically had to undergo extra administration, put myself at increased risk through sex work, and had to complicate relationships with friends just to be able to afford to study.
I had always believed I was well equipped to deal with being an estranged student at Cardiff. I relied heavily on my own savings and wages but I also spent a lot of time researching support available through my university; my department’s financial hardship fund and the mental health services offered in particular helped me a lot.
That all changed after January however when I was told my mother had been diagnosed with cancer. Coping with the continued emotional and physical distance between me and my family was incredibly hard and would not have been possible without all the friends I made at university. My LGBT+ society (CU Pride) and our campaigning arm CU LGBT+ association became another family for me, having their support and opening up to them over the years has helped massively.
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 don’t have supportive parents or family members who are accepting of their identity. There is also evidence to suggest that family rejection is a key cause of estrangement in the LGBT+ community.
Loneliness is a major impact of estrangement, with over 70% of estranged students reporting feelings of isolation. Students who are estranged from their family often feel unacknowledged, invisible and sensitive to judgement and stigma around their family situation. Twenty-eight percent of students in Stand Alone’s research expressed that they did not feel comfortable accessing support within their institution, due to either not knowing how to or because of previous experiences of insufficient support or stigma.
For these and many more reasons, one of the focuses of the NUS LGBT+ campaign this year is student estrangement. We’ll be working with Stand Alone to continue the fight towards eradicating the stigma surrounding estrangement and for better support for estranged students through university and beyond.
There’s so much that you can do on your campuses to support estranged students, from getting your institution to sign-up to Stand Alone’s pledge to provide better support, organising coffee mornings, campaigning to get specific bursaries for estranged students to putting on events during the holiday season, lobbying accommodation services to provide rooms over breaks, including estranged students in your mental health campaigns, and much, much more.
Download our guide now and get campaigning where you are.
Get in touch to let us know what you’ll do to support estranged students on your campus: firstname.lastname@example.org. Together we are #WithEstrangedStudents