For 13-year-old Nithya*, life has never been this stressful before. A class eight student in a private school in Madurai, Nithya did not have any worries before March 2020. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic seared through the population, throwing normal life out of gear, her studies have become a major source of stress. With schools ordered to shut, classes shifting completely online and irregular and new assessment tools, students have been at the receiving end of too many changes in too short a period of time. Students who are used to a set calendar through the academic year had to experience tremendous uncertainty when it came to learning goals, probability of the conduct of exams and the assessment modes, to name just a few.
A paper authored by Ananya Mahapatra, department of Psychiatry at PostGraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research says that issues like the digital divide prevalent between the urban and the rural areas of the country has become a harbinger of academic stress in the students. âStudents in secondary and tertiary education settings are known to face a varied range of ongoing normative stressors associated with their ongoing academic demands (reference). However, in the current scenario created by the social restrictions imposed by the pandemic, have led to escalation to severe levels of academic stress in students. There is enough evidence to demonstrate that severe and long-standing academic-related stress has an adverse effect on academic performance, mental health and wellbeing of children and adolescents. Academic-related stress is significantly associated with reduced student academic motivation (Liu, 2015) and academic disengagement (Liu & Lu, 2011),â the paper adds.
Lack of motivation
Uncertainty is something that will make students be worried all the time, says Dr M Manjula, Professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health and NeuroSciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru. âOver time, the learning pattern itself undergoes a shift. Many students who aspire to study in good colleges find themselves in a limbo,â she says. Pointing out that the countryâs education system is largely exam centric and not learning centric, Dr Manjula says that this uncertainty affects the motivation of the students. âThis kind of uncertainty hampers the motivation of the student to perform, because there arenât any exams, the assessments are little. So when the students donât get to see results for their efforts, their motivation naturally comes down.â
âShe was a studious and sincere kid before the pandemic and even in the initial days. But now, she just doesnât seem to have the interest to attend the classes online,â says Savitri, Nithyaâs mother. Logging in to the class and walking around the house or doing something else has become a routine for Nithya of late.
Dr Preeti Jacob, Associate Professor at NIMHANS in the Department of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, says that the situation is bad for everyone and there is no single factor to be blamed for this state of affairs. âWe mustn't forget that everybody is in the same state. That is, this uncertainty is not deliberate in any manner. The exam boards, for instance, CBSE or ICSE are not deliberately keeping the students in a state of anxiety. They are also grappling with the situationâ whether conducting exams will cause more harm by potentially exposing them to a deadly virus or not conducting the exams and the fallout of that decision with its implications for learning. There is no good or easy answer. At the end of the day, student's safety is of utmost importance and this is the basis for the decisions taken,â she explains. She also says that this uncertainty will bring in anxiety, difficulty to concentrate and often, lethargy in students.
COVID-19 hampered mental health support
While explaining how the number of calls that the organisation is getting in the last 14 months is high, Dr Preeti rues that the pandemic situation has hampered the accessibility of mental health support to those in need.
âWe have a lot of requests from parents and students seeking support for mental health. But the footfall to hospitals across the city has come down when it has to do with issues relating to the quality of life. At this time, people seek help for severe, life-threatening conditions. Everything else takes a back seat. People have had to restrict even regular follow-up for their existing health conditions like diabetes, blood pressure etc because there is a worry and anxiety about reaching out to healthcare professionals and meeting them in hospitals, where there is a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. So while there are requests to deal with mental health issues, there is also the anxiety of coming to hospitals to get help,â she points out.
She also flags the economic disparities in society as a main factor in who gets access to mental healthcare. âFor example, people who use public transport cannot come to the hospital during the lockdown. So, even if a child is distressed or depressed, they will not be able to bring them because there is no way to bring that child. You need to have a stable internet connection and the wherewithal to access telepsychiatry services.â
How can students cope?
Dr Manjula expresses caution about studentsâ ability to cope and come to terms with the stress that is born out of this uncertainty. âWherever they do to cope, it will have a negative impact because that classroom atmosphere is not there. Everything is online. So many activities that were there in schools and colleges are not happening. Social skills are missing. Enrolling in various courses tailored to their interests might help them a little,â she says.
Dr Preeti, meanwhile, hopes for a community-based effort to address the situation. She says that the parents, well-wishers and mental health professionals in the community where the child is, should put in efforts to cushion the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children. âParents need to be able to talk to their children about their worries and anxieties. There must be a way in which dialogue happens at home in order for the children to put their worries into perspective,â she says, adding that schools must also play their part in shifting the focus out of merely academics to something more. âSchools should think about how social development can happen and how they can invest in that. By that I mean, how will schools build the connections between students, students and teachers, and others because that is the kind of cushioning that students need at this point in time,â she explains.
Adding that mental health professionals need to adopt a tiered approach to tackle the situation, Dr Preeti says that categorising those in need of help as âuniversalâ, âselectiveâ and âtargetedâ will help them attend to those who need the maximum support first.
*Name changed on request.