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Mental Health Helplines Can’t Be the Solution for Distressed Students

Mental Health Helplines Can’t Be the Solution for Distressed Students

Last week I reached out to my students to find out not so much about their academic progress but other concerns and worries in the present situation – the coronavirus outbreak.

As they shared their experiences and worries, it emerged that they are facing various kinds of difficulties though the magnitude differs from student to student. Most of them are trying to cope with the sudden change of schedule and methods and their primary concern is how to maintain calm and remain stress free. They are anxious as there is no clarity about how the remaining academic year would pan out and the uncertainty over upcoming university examinations in May/June would take place (if at all they do).

It wasn’t difficult to fathom from these interactions that they were looking for very specific information about their academic life, which could to a large extent relieve them from their present trauma.

On April 6, the University Grants Commission directed universities and colleges to set up helplines to address the psychological health of the country’s student community. It is a step in the right direction given the present lockdown and uncertainty about the academic future of thousands of students across the country. The institutions have been asked to constitute task forces consisting of senior faculty members and professional counsellors to interact with students in need of help through emails, social media and over the phone.

As much as such initiatives are welcome, it is important to remember the difficult situations in which the students left or had to stop attending classes as the COVID-19 crisis began. The solutions thereafter to mitigate the worries of the student community have not been sufficient.

Students in various parts of the country went home during a short break without any preparation, and did not carry their books. Those who were asked to vacate hostels had to leave in a rush and panic as they hardly had time to plan things. As I understand, most of the students – whether outstation or day scholars — are now relying on downloaded reading material and portions of books, both imperfect substitutes for textbooks and classroom teaching.

Amidst all the chaos, there is also tremendous pressure on them to complete their coursework and submit assignments. There are thousands who live in far-flung areas, have very poor internet connections and can’t regularly access the colleges’ websites or such other online platforms where teachers typically share lectures, reading instructions and other resources. Apart from geography, there exists a glaring disparity in the backgrounds of the students: not all of them use smartphones and laptops. There are instances (in normal circumstances) when students find it difficult to even pay for their phone recharge.

Thus, the increased reliance on online teaching-learning modules and platforms, being used as a gateway to overcome lost teaching time, may end up adversely affecting the ‘not so privileged’ students. This could lead to further financial burden, anxiety and mental stress.

Another problem, specific to the students in Delhi, is their experience of the recent riots. They were already traumatised and even before they could recover from the shock of the violence and turmoil, they faced the sudden closure of classes. There are many students who reside in the riot-hit parts of the city, and they had to stay away from college even before the lockdown came into force. To add to that, the internet connectivity in those areas has been weak for months now.

The students are not only finding it difficult to regularly access the uploaded resources but are also unable to meet the assignment submission deadlines. Even if the teachers are willing to cooperate, it doesn’t relieve those students from the unwarranted yet understandable fear or panic of losing out on grades because of ‘late submission’.

All universities and colleges have a large number of blind and differently abled students who have serious issues, whether they are home or away. They are often victims of social stigma and domestic violence. Their experiences reveal that college gives them a sense of freedom and confidence which they often fail to get at home or in familial settings. COVID-19 has further worsened their plight. To add to that, the accessibility of resources remains a challenge. There are ‘disabled friendly’ e-learning apps and browser extensions that assist students in five categories (text to speech, readability, reading comprehension, focus and navigation). However, it is anybody’s as to whether any of these students, most of whom belong to socio-economically backward segments of the population, are actually equipped to avail of them.

Once the pandemic winds down, female students will be the more negatively affected. India’s faltering economy together with its patriarchy and preference for education of male members could lead to a drastic rise in the drop-out rates of college-going female students. And among them, the socio-economically backward and differently abled ones are likely more threatened. Their fears and trauma are deeper and more complex.

For the past several days, there has been news that the academic calendar will be revised, postponing various exams. Before everything else, there has to be clarity about the forthcoming exam schedule and alternative assessment criteria for promotion. Any decision will affect the future of a huge number of a heterogeneous group of students. Therefore, directives have to be issued posthaste and in no unclear terms to the students so that they are able to focus on their studies.

The ‘Minding our mind during COVID-19 pandemic’ guide released by the government reads: “The most common emotion faced by all is fear. It makes us anxious, panicky and can even possibly make us think, say or do things that we might not consider appropriate under normal circumstances.”

If the mandate of the guide is to reduce fear, it should focus on the fear of the disease and its fallout as well as fear of the uncertainty over the academic future of thousands of students.

For the helplines to be really effective the task force or committee should include young, dynamic teachers and well-trained counsellors from diverse backgrounds. Very often distressed students are unable to reach out not only due to family constraints but also because they find it difficult to relate to, communicate or connect with senior teachers. In our country, where seniority is emphasised and quality training is lacking, it is not easy to say how much committees and helplines can support those in need in this crisis situation.

In sum, there needs to be a strong and mature infrastructure to enable smooth exchange of information between teachers, students and all stakeholders across categories. Apps and online platforms will not be able to bridge the already existing disparities. And the promotion of online teaching/learning in the current situation is exclusive, myopic and discriminatory.

A healthy mind cannot be isolated from the various external factors it is a product of. So unless the concerns discussed above and the students’ expectations are addressed, it is unlikely that any effort to improve the mental health conditions of students will succeed.

Devjani Ray is an assistant professor at the department of English, Miranda House, University of Delhi.

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