Student mental health in digital age and the Covid-19 pandemic

Mental health conditions, disorders and diseases of young adults are rarely on the frontline of health regulations and local health agendas even though the World Health Organisation estimates that worldwide about 10-20% of young people experience mental disorders.

Tariro Chivige

Economist

In fact, neuropsychiatric conditions are the leading cause of disability in young people across the globe. If untreated, these conditions can severely influence their educational attainments and their potential to live fulfilling and productive lives.

Students are more likely to experience higher levels of anxiety, depressive symptoms, sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, suicidal feelings, concentration difficulties, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), poor academic performance, low educational expectations and demonstrate more aggressive, impulsive as well as anxious behaviours. One would expect these mental health challenges to be exacerbated by the digital age, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic scourge.

In Zimbabwe, there is a creeping fear that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will go beyond its physical and economic toll.

The emergence of the pandemic brought about a massive use of digital technologies in order to conform to the new world where normal human interaction is now being challenged and minimised.

Though the use of educational digital technologies has been around for some time, the Covid-19 pandemic blight has immensely promoted its use, mainly due to the lockdowns and scaling down of human interactions even in schools.

This has brought about a lot of changes on the educational systems and some of these changes, if not all of them, have a huge bearing on the mental health of the affected students.

Not much attention is being given to the mental health of students who are still in school, whether in primary or secondary school or even those in tertiary education.

The country’s healthcare system is at a point where mental health remains a matter of secondary importance and experts speculate that this is a ticking time bomb amid the rising casualties of the pandemic.

There have been some concerns which medical experts have raised: that the attention the emotional and mental toll of the crisis is getting is nowhere near the attention it deserves.

Basically, there is a lot of fear and anxiety abound among many Zimbabweans with the majority of people fearing contracting the virus, infecting or losing a loved one, becoming unemployed etc.

Students, especially those in tertiary education, also have their own fears in addition to these: will they adapt to the digital education currently supplementing the physical classes, fear of their social lives being disrupted, fear of not getting employment after graduating, fear of their parents or guardians no longer affording to finance their studies due to them being laid off from work?

There is a sense of despondency and hopelessness that these young adults are currently experiencing. The closure of borders and application of travel restrictions is also worsening the situation as people fear not being able to ever see their parents, children or relatives living in other countries.

With the anticipated coming of the 3rd wave, students too fear the effects of being restricted to their homes and the uncertainty of the pandemic’s impact on their academic future. With this sudden shift away from the classroom in many parts of the globe, some are wondering whether the adoption of online learning will continue to persist post-pandemic, and how such a shift would impact their educational journey.

University students are some of the people whose educational journey has been hit the most with the Covid-19 pandemic. While students in primary and secondary education have more or less gone back to physical classes, university students’ physical classes have been shortened quite noticeably.

The content which used to be covered over a three to four months semester period is now being covered in on average two to four weeks block sessions. For students who have been used to physical classes this takes some huge adjusting. What makes the situation a bit more complex is that one now has to put in even extra effort especially for the average student who used to rely on tutors and classroom peer discussions provided by physical interactions prior to the pandemic.

This extra effort at times means the use of online libraries which a majority of students do not have access to or simply cannot afford.

Some students without reliable internet access and/or technology struggle to participate in digital learning and this gap is also seen across countries and even between income brackets within societies.

All this causes a lot of mental strain on the students, and if there are no proper support systems this will likely lead to mental breakdowns of a lot of students and hence affecting an entire generation all together.

Taking these mental health concerns into consideration, it is important that even academics should have a deeper understanding of the mental well-being of their students and how these impacts on students’ learning and academic performance.

There is a need to focus on identifying risk and resilience factors that contribute to the mental health of students. Platforms that promote the exchange of ideas on what could be done by academic staff and their institutions to support students experiencing mental health problems towards positive academic and personal outcomes, and enhanced coping in crisis situations like the Covid-19 pandemic should be established.

Current times bring about a need for a collaborative effort nationwide among educational institutions, communities and the government. They should now, as a matter of urgency, improve the public mental health systems in the country.

Though Zimbabwe’s mental health care system has its own strengths, some challenges can still be noted especially when it comes to the management of mental health.

As a result of successes in attaining international research funding, Zimbabwe has witnessed a growth in innovative mental health services research and research capacity-building.

However, proper public mental health units are only concentrated in Harare and mental health units outside of Harare need massive refurbishment and more robust staffing. Additionally, there is a lack of funding for medication, human resources, and mental health promotion in both psychiatric hospitals and community-based care.

Though the nation’s Mental Health Policy states that mental health is now included in pre-service and in-service training for general nurses and medical students and the policy also promotes the decentralisation of mental health services to the district level, the treating of patients in outpatient and community-based facilities rather than institutionalising them in inpatient specialist has not yet been fully achieved.

The policy describes decentralisation as one of the key guiding principles to the sustainability of mental health, noting that it will increase access to mental health services particularly in rural areas.

Though this is such a great goal that the ministry is hoping to achieve, if the country is going to be able to win the battle of mental health challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought, there is need to urgently find ways of achieving this goal.

Mental health units should thus also be established within the different schools and tertiary institutions and local communities to enable the students to get the necessary help if need be.

There are only two mental health hospitals, two psychiatric inpatient units, and seven outpatient mental health facilities functioning in all of Zimbabwe. Most are in the public sector.

Some facilities have been closed or are low-functioning due to inadequate resources for maintenance. Most of the country’s rural population is unserved by mental health services. The country still faces some complexities in treating people with mental illnesses. There is also a shortage of human resources for mental health in Zimbabwe.

Awareness campaigns on the mental health effects of the changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic should be massively implemented. Demystification of mental health problems among young children and the young adults should also be an area all the relevant stakeholders aim to achieve.

The mental stability of the future generation now strongly hinges on how and what the elders and those in authority do today to preserve it amid the new normal that the Covid-19 pandemic brought. If this situation is given the necessary attention that it deserves, the future generation’s mental well-being will definitely be preserved.

Chivige is an economist. These weekly New Horizon articles are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society  and past president of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators in Zimbabwe. Email: kadenge.zes@gmail.com/ cell: +263 772 382 852