Staying safe if you are clinically vulnerable

Gemma Cormican

Gemma Cormican is a Mental Health Adviser & Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist at the University of York

If you’re clinically vulnerable you might feel frightened about returning to university and for good reason. Living with a health condition that makes you clinically vulnerable in a pandemic can be frightening. However, finding ways to keep yourself as safe as possible, and manage these difficult feelings, is an important part of engaging with your studies and friends.

Whilst shielding is often experienced by many students as “very restrictive,” however, it was at least clear and easier to maintain. Changes in rules and advice can be confusing, so if you’re feeling worried about how to ensure your safety, it’s understandable.

Having to help others to understand our health condition and the dangers we face, can feel too much at times. You may be concerned that others will not take your condition into account, and mistakenly behave in ways that put you at risk.

Because of these concerns, it is clear that some vulnerable students are making the understandable decision to avoid going out. It’s normal to avoid the things that we’re frightened of but we do need social contact with others, help and support and the opportunity to have some fun.

What you can do

We have put together a checklist of things that you can do and people who you can contact, to help keep yourself physically safe, build your network and manage your feelings.

1. Registering for support

There are lots of places where you can get support to help keep safe, including:

  • Your university: Every institution will have a policy in place for clinically vulnerable students. Find out what yours is and how your university can support you. Engage with the processes and arrangements that have been put in place to keep you safe.
  • Disability services: contact your institution's disability services and make them aware of your ‘clinically vulnerable’ status, and use the support available at your university or institution for your practical, academic and wellbeing needs.
  • Supermarkets: Request access to a priority supermarket delivery slot, or visit the supermarket at quieter times. Lots of supermarkets have specific time slots for vulnerable people to do their shopping.
  • Local council: Find out what help you might be able to get from your local council.
  • Government: As well as registering for support from your institution, the government has set up a new online service for registering for support.
  • Your Students’ Union or Guild may be providing opportunities for online socialising or opportunities to meet others safely

2. Keeping yourself safe outside your home

Here are some practical tips that you can follow to make it safer to leave the house or take a delivery. Following these tips may help to increase your sense of control, make you feel more confident and reduce your worry.

  • Staying 2 metres apart can be very difficult in student accommodation. It might be helpful, to speak with your housemates, explain your needs and ask them to respect your space. That way you can all work together
  • Wash your hands with soap and water often, and carry hand sanitiser with you to use when soap and water are not available. Always wash or sanitise your hands before and after travelling to and/or being in communal spaces.
  • You should wash your hands for 20 seconds, using soap and water or hand sanitiser following government guidelines. Information on how to wash your hands is available from NHS.UK.
  • Wear something that covers your nose and mouth in places where it's hard to stay away from other people. In England, if possible, you must wear a face covering in a number of indoor settings.
  • Download the NHS COVID-19 app, and scan the QR code when you visit a venue. The app will give you early warning if you have visited a venue where you may have come into contact with coronavirus. If you report COVID-19 symptoms in the app, you'll be redirected to a website where you can book a test.
  • If you use shared equipment, for example in a laboratory, make use of the cleaning instructions and materials provided.

3. Managing difficult feelings

Even if you’re taking steps to keep yourself safe, we can’t control the actions of others or the pandemic itself. Uncertainty can be difficult to manage anyway but this can be even more tricky if we feel our health is threatened.

If you believe others are putting you at risk, your response may be to try to control their behaviours or get angry. This is a normal and logical response to the situation. However, as we noted above, we can’t control others and trying to do so is likely to lead to you feeling frustrated, upset and may damage your friendships. It may also be helpful to read our article on preparing to address conflict.

Try to work with your friends and those around you and encourage them to behave in ways that are helpful. If you become very concerned about the behaviour of other students then speak to the support services at your university about this.

Acknowledging that we’re frightened can make a big difference to the way we are feeling. Listen to your feelings, and to the concerns that the feelings raise for you, and reassure yourself that it is ok to feel this way. Please remember that experiencing anxiety in response to being clinically vulnerable during a pandemic is normal.

The fact is, uncertainty is going to continue for some time yet. Trying to predict how others will behave, and attempting to change that behaviour, is often ineffective. We can only control our own individual behaviours. But if we can accept uncertainty and focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t, then we can reduce our anxiety and start to feel more confident in ourselves.

One way of doing this is to build your action plan, this will help you to start thinking about the decisions that you do have control over, instead of those that you don’t.

Universities have done a lot of work to support vulnerable students during this pandemic. Engaging with the support available at your university or institution, and the advice in this article, can help you to navigate this year with more confidence, keep you safe and maintain your wellbeing.