By Dineo Mya Serame
Mental Health activism has been on the rise around the world, and the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for more conversations and resources towards it. As many students brace for the aftermath of COVID-19 and the disruptions it has imposed on their lives, universities continue to put measures in place to help settle into the “new normal.” However, has there been a laissez-faire attitude by the different universities in addressing the impact of coronavirus on student’s mental health?
As a person living with Bipolar Disorder, I have seen huge variations in the length of my manic-depressive episodes as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. Like many students, the stress and anxiety brought by the sudden suspension of projects and the inaccessibility to labs have been overwhelming.
I am however one of the fortunate people who are registered with the Disability Advisory Services (DAS) here at Oxford, which offers me mental health support and advice. The mentorship/counselling program offered by the University of Oxford has proven to be helpful especially during these trying times. DAS was quick to react to news of the pandemic by promptly introducing remote mentoring sessions, therefore students registered with the unit never missed a week of mentoring.
What about the students not registered with DAS?
Universities provide counselling services to all students at both college and university level.
The University of Cambridge website has links to Qwell, a free online service offering counselling and peer support to both students and members of the public. This is in addition to the already existing university counselling services.
Colleges in Oxford have been sending email chains to students to make them aware of welfare and wellbeing services available. The in-college weekly zoom check-ins/coffee chats have also become a source of therapy for students.
The staff, alumni, and students of the University of Manchester have raised money for the institution’s Coronavirus Emergency Hardship Fund. The money will go towards helping students affected by the Corona Virus pandemic. This should help with the after-pandemic financial assistance anxiety that most are dealing with.
Academics have also been sharing useful tips online to help students.
The May announcements about online exams and classes have seen many universities update their websites, highlighting the NHS’ Every Mind Matters campaign, but this action raises several questions.
Is that action enough?
Are we prepared for the possible decline in student performance?
Do online classes and exams take into account the emotional toil the pandemic has had on students?
Mitigating circumstances is the new buzz phrase going around the student community. This refers to any serious circumstances beyond one’s control which may have adversely affected their academic performance. These include but are not limited to medical conditions.
The process of applying for mitigating circumstances has been adjusted to acknowledge the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ academic performance. However, it will be hard to tell which students qualify for mitigating circumstances on mental health grounds, and therefore assessments might be required for the examination amnesties to be granted.
Though a great attempt to compute qualitative, individual experiences of the pandemic, there is an inherent privileging of those who make known their grievances as opposed to those who suffer silently. As it is known from many researchers, people suffering from depression and anxiety are least likely to speak out and apply for schemes such as this one. In addition, given that the coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone, universities should be open to the idea that every student is eligible for some form of mitigating circumstances compensation.
Research from King’s College London‘s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience emphasizes the need for universities to assess the mental health effects of online teaching and studying on both students and staff. The sudden shift to online teaching, albeit seeming to have been a smooth transition judging from the continuation of teaching, will have a huge influence on students. Therefore, it is worth noting that many researchers are currently addressing the effects of online on students’ mental health.
What more can be done?
In their paper titled The long term mental health impact of covid-19 must not be ignored!, Holmes and colleagues highlighted the need for more research to address ways to mitigate consequences of the pandemic on mental health, as well as the aftershock of the repeated media consumption and health messaging around COVID-19. The paper looks at the effects of the pandemic on students, vulnerable groups, and front liners. It also calls for funding for coronavirus-related mental health research as a mechanism of intervention to improve wellbeing, as well as promote adherence to advise about COVID-19 while minimizing stress.
The arena of mental health has been historically underappreciated, and the COVID-19 pandemic has glowed some light on the importance of conversations around it, especially in relation to university students. Learning institutions are faced with a mammoth task of ensuring students and staff wellbeing is prioritized during and after the pandemic. The efforts being made to address mental health issues are evident, and researchers in the field of psychiatry are putting out information to make us aware of what lies ahead. The methods in place at the moment, however, need to be revised to help all students without privileging those with the confidence to talk about their mental health struggles.
Mental health effects of the pandemic should be addressed by both colleges and universities, not as an after-thought but as a point of importance. The wellbeing of the student community should be a priority over the need to produce graduates and admit a new cohort. In saying that, we as the students have the responsibility to consume and make use of the right information. We should be aware of the services available in our institutions of learning and in our communities and make use of them as such.
Hotopf, M., Bullmore, E., O'Connor, R., & Holmes, E. (2020). The scope of mental health research in the COVID-19 Pandemic and its aftermath. The British Journal Of Psychiatry, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.2020.125
Kousoulis, A., Van Bortel, T., Hernandez, P., & John, A. (2020). The long term mental health impact of covid-19 must not be ignored. The BMJ Opinion. Retrieved 27 June 2020, from https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2020/05/05/the-long-term-mental-health-impact-of-covid-19-must-not-be-ignored/
Dineo Mya Serame is a 2019 Rhodes scholar currently doing her PhD in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Oxford. Mya is part of an elite group of engineers at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, the Biomedical Signal Processing & m-health group, a team that continues to put clinical needs at the core of their research. She did her BSC in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Botswana, graduating with the class of 2018. Dineo has been a mental health activist since 2017 and uses her platforms to inform on issues of mental health.