Virtual Mental Health Crisis

03:18 PM | 5 Jul, 2020
Virtual Mental Health Crisis
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The Covid-19 has galvanized a huge surge in online learning across the country. Many perceive it as a panacea for the education crisis marked by the Covid-19. However, there is a flip to it. Students have reported anxiety, depression, stress, schizophrenia, and panic disorder during their online course works. Several have dropped their courses; waiting for the varsities to reopen. Students, spending an extended amount of time on ‘screens’ are prone to a great mental health crisis compared to traditional face-to-face learning.

Students who previously had the chance to roam around the campus, play sports and participate in extra-circular are now glued to their laptop screen throughout the completion of their course works; exacerbating their susceptibility to depression and mental illness.

The administration, staff, campus community, and faculty must understand that students learning online have the same needs as those students studying in conventional classrooms. An online support system is fundamental as much as it is needed on the ground.

In the United States of America, universities have created extensive web-based services for technical help in online courses, enrollment services, financial aid, library resources, and most importantly for the health and mental wellness of the students. The student-helpdesk in my university in the USA remains functional 24/7. It can be accessed through landline, cell phone, emails, or by using the app. Whether it’s a technical emergency or immense pressure because of an approaching deadline; one is always greeted with a calm, reassuring and compassionate response from the other end.

Varsities in Pakistan must also craft a robust support system for the assistance and wellbeing of the students. The faculty, administration, and campus community should collaborate to find out early signs of anxiety and depression in students taking online classes. This is an uphill task; in a traditional classroom setting the faculty can interact face-to-face with the students, having direct experiential contact. This enables the faculty to pick up mental health warning signs: deterioration in hygiene, lethargy, absences, mood swings, and short attention spans.

Contrarily, e-learning lacks direct sensory contact with students who are at a distant geographic location, making it difficult for the faculty to notice any signs of mental illness in the students.

The following five recommendations can help.

Firstly, professors and instructors must be the whistleblowers as they are the primary connection between the student and the university. Any abrupt change in personality, behavior and academic performance of the student should get an eyebrow raised. Sudden deterioration in the quality of students’ work, volatile behavior, late assignments, unresponsiveness to emails, or not picking phone calls are some of the examples of atypical behavior. Faculty that are familiar with services for distance students and have the institutional backing can help distressed students.

Secondly, for professors of online courses, the primary academic issues that cause concern are students failing to complete assignments on time, a lack of presence in online discussions, and failure to respond to emails/phone calls. Sometimes these problems are due to mental health concerns, early intervention can help reduce the chance of a student's problems turning into a crisis later on.

Thirdly, when an instructor identifies the need to address a mental health concern; a conversation should be initiated.  "It seems as if you are having trouble" or "I sense that you are anxious" shows concern without confrontation. Moreover, the course expectations can be reviewed as well as the necessary criteria for the student to continue in the course. Non-judgmental acceptance of the student's state of mind helps encourage the student to talk about the problem. Later, the student can be referred for counseling and medical consultation.

Fourthly, best practices in mental health resources for online students need to be accessible via the internet from any geographic location. These online student services need to be highly conspicuous and always provide contact information for reaching a live person for assistance.

Fifthly, the varsities can have ‘pre-enrollment services’ describing online programs and courses, self-assessment tools for the students to evaluate their readiness for online programs. Unexpected course objectives, unfamiliar evaluation methods can lead to mental health difficulties for the students as the coursework progresses.

Timely intervention can help many students escape anxiety, recover from depression, and complete their long-awaited and long-winded degrees through online education. Varsities offering mental health education, crisis services, self-help services, disability, and counseling services can nip the evil in the bud.

The writer is a Fulbright Ph.D. candidate at Texas A&M University and graduated from The University of Tokyo.