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Mental Illness Among University Students During the Pandemic

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COVID-19 is not just a public health emergency but indeed emerged as a mental health emergency wherein the mental health status of many of the people is kept under distress. Mental illness encompasses the health conditions in which the person experiences emotional, thinking, behavioural problems or even the combination of these and are related with distress responses and difficulty functioning in social, work or family activities.

University students confront peculiar challenges ever since the pandemic started, eventually leading to poor mental health conditions ranging from anxiety, depression and substance abuse to behavioural changes such as difficulty sleeping and stress eating. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, 1 in every 5 teens is suffering from either one or more mental disorders.

The universities decided to temporarily close; the in-person classes are withstood keeping in view the intensifying situation caused due to COVID-19, being a reason for the psychological distress among students as they have no option than staying at home. Even though classes continue online, the campus life with its rich resources and strongest support system for the students has been ended on a short term basis which is responsible for the heightened stress among them.

Few students who feel campus like home are experiencing hard feelings like frustration, anxiety and betrayal. Some students are facing loneliness and separation while being at their own places as they have no in-person connections with friends and relatives due to movement restriction. Students who avail counselling services by campus are no longer able to receive counselling due to this pandemic which again has a major impact on their psychological well-being. This may lead to suicidal behaviour and substance abuse. The second most common cause of death within this age group is suicide in the present situations.

These distressed indicators can have a major impact on the holistic health of the students because mental health conditions and viral diseases are linked to each other by biological and behavioural pathways. On one hand, stress and depression may raise the sensitivity towards viral infections and on the other hand because of these mental health disorders, they may seek for help slowly than others and also due to which probability of diagnosing the health conditions like communicable diseases would be delayed. The mortality rates will be high, that is two to three times more than the normal population, reducing the life expectancy by 13–30 years in the people who are experiencing severe mental illness conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and major depressive disorder.

Students were asked to leave the hostels within the notice of a few days. Leaving the hostels is one of the most stressful situations for the students as it is not easy to go home for many students. The international students who are left at the hostels are facing concerning issues. Students with families having economic crisis, limited housing structure may find it difficult in arranging the last moment transportation and housing as the students are arriving their home towns. Many students cannot get nutritious food like in hostel who are having financial burdens at home and the situation may even get worsen if the university cafes are closed or else if they don’t get the financial assistance for the year. The closure of local business centres has furthermore increased their stress levels as it is not so easy to get low wages jobs to earn some income. The students who earn little income for their monthly expenditures by taking tuitions to juniors or to the other students were stopped which may, in turn, have an effect on their mental health.

The students who do not have enough infrastructure at their homes, cannot either receive online classes or tackle with the new virtual era leading to academic stress and isolation. Few students who are allowed to stay in the hostels are provided with limited facilities. Other students like research scholars, who are quarantined because of increased vulnerability of spreading the virus may not be able to involve in their research activities which certainly lead to the stress of not completing their degree in time.

This social isolation and reduced academic and research activity may increase their feelings of hopelessness and anxiety in many students. Even the students who are not quarantined and are receiving enough facilities from home are also under threat of mental illness because of a sudden change to online teaching, academic changes and the events which are pre-planned like awards ceremonies are cancelled. Many university students have lost their campus placements due to this pandemic and the provisional hostel fees which have yet to be paid can worsen their financial problems and also mental health issues. They are also sensitive to the issue that they can transmit the COVID-19 to the family members while coming back to home with the context that youth are asymptomatic carriers.

How to overcome mental illness

  • Support the development of life skills by adapting to the new situations caused because of this pandemic which includes managing friendships, relationships, study skills, time management, problem-solving, decision making, controlling anxiety, and being emotionally strong. Lecturers should virtually engage with the students at least once in a week to know their concerns related to academic, study or other issues.
  • Promote social connectedness as social distancing doesn’t mean that they have to lose their social contacts. Encourage the students to be in touch with their classmates and teachers by actively making them participate in online study groups and extracurricular activities. Colleges should also start online social activities from their side to make students socially connected.
  • Identify students at risk while communicating with them through telephone, email or social media, ensure active listening and if a student seems to be vulnerable, listen carefully at three stages; the content of what they are saying, emotions and behavioural responses to the thoughts and feelings. If in that case, offer tips and suggestions to the parents and families on how to recognise the children who are facing these situations and can offer good strength.
  • Increase help-seeking behaviours in the students, who need help, but are not sure of how to get it may find even more difficult in these stressful times. So, virtual counselling centres should be offered by the colleges in order to keep the students mentally health.

University students are psychologically vulnerable and the present situations are making them extra vulnerable. With respect to these issues, they are currently at high risk experiencing extreme stressful conditions and social isolation. The families and colleges should give all the mental health support needed to them in these difficult times and should not forget that today’s youth are the future of tomorrow’s world.


Image credit: Freepik

Navya Gedela is an MSc student at the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Punjab Agricultural University.

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