The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent strategies to manage the pandemic have forced significant changes in our daily routines. Strategies to manage the pandemic such as lockdowns and social distancing have greatly altered how people engage to do work. Higher learning institutions globally have been forced to undertake unprecedented changes of switching to online teaching and learning mode. As many universities and colleges were unprepared these strategies were implemented as emergency remote teaching and learning with the anticipation of returning to some form of normal business operation in the near future. However, it is now over a year since first lockdowns with limited optimism for eliminating COVID-19 in the world apart from a glimpse of hope on the discovered vaccines with their complications and side effects. Moreover, the distribution and actual vaccination has been slow in poorer countries and particularly in the African continent. Especially in the Global South, this situation is likely to persist as a status quo for some time. Consequently, most institutions have been forced to innovated and adopted some for hybrid teaching and learning approaches. Most institutions have resorted to combine both online and face-to-face instructions into a single, seamless teaching and learning experience.
The drastic changes in teaching and learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have grave implications to higher education. For many students, university campus is not just a space for learning but also a place for other social interactions. University campuses are known as a space for building relationships that forges important alliance and networks, which evolve and extend beyond university education. Moreover, academically campus life provides a secondary learning space for students through peer-to-peer consultation. To facilitate students’ adjustments and coping with the new norm of teaching and learning in higher education, it is then essential to take note of how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting their mental health. The following are the various ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the mental health of higher learning students’:-
Symptoms of anxiety associated disturbances to educational progress as a result of academic delays and uncertainties are observed among students of higher learning institutions. With the nation adopting a total national lockdown resulted into a suspension of teaching and learning activities. During the level one lockdown, regulations only permitting essential services to operate, which made students uncertain as to when studies will resume. Anxiety was more felt among first year students who have just joined the university and also among final year students who were about to exit university life. This situation is much worse for first year college students; apart from facing the pressure of having to manage their academic workload and fit in the college life, they are now also supposed to adapt new ways of learning and coping strategies. Thus, the COVID-19 and associated strategies to mitigate the pandemic has a persistent impact on the mood and wellness behaviors of first-year university students. Their academic future is suddenly uncertain, thus increasing their level of stress.
The COVID-19 pandemic may also exacerbated existing mental health conditions among students, for instance international students, many of whom have had to scramble to return home or find housing after sudden campus closings that required adapting quickly to distance learning technologies and settings.
The resumption of studies through the online mode has also caused anxiety. The online mode has further exacerbated academic stressors for students as they needed to adjust and become accustomed to the various platforms for teaching and learning which included Moodle, Zoom, Skype, Microsoft teams, WhatsApp and the likes. Students are required to be tech-averse in order to manage how to navigate through various platforms used.
Disturbance of Habitual coping strategies: The pandemic and its corresponding management strategies imposed have disturbed certain student coping habits. For instance, access to peers for assistance, identifying key points through stress by instructors’ body language, group discussions and face-to-face consultation that were facilitated by face-to-face mode of learning are either restricted or inaccessible to students. The resulting loneliness, isolation and disturbance in habitual coping strategies develop more stress and anxiety among students and in some extreme cases may lead to depression.
Reduced motivation to learn: The ‘loss of’ or limited level of contact among students has restricted the level of required peer-to-peer learning thus causing a different kind of stress. Students who were able to seek clarification from other students while on campus now have limited if not complete lack of access to such assistance. What could have been resolved and explained over a lunch or a break between classes, it now requires a phone call, a text message or an email, which is an additional expense and may take a longer turnaround time.
Lack of conducive learning environments: Learning online due to the pandemic makes female students, undergraduates and full-time students more vulnerable to the non-supportive learning environments at home. At home they are more likely to be distracted by other obligations such as caring for siblings, elderly and sick members in the family, cooking cleaning and other house chores as well family economic activities. The pandemic is widening the educational inequality even further among higher learning students.
Unstable Infrastructure supporting online learning: – network accessibility, coordinated learning due to load shedding. The instability of infrastructure supporting online learning mode, mainly the Internet accessibility and stable power supply is another stressor and anxiety trigger factor among higher learning students. Load shedding has made it difficult for both teachers and learners to coordinate for live learning sessions.
Higher learning students are faced with several psychological distress related to academic load, taking on more adult-like responsibilities without having yet mastered the skills and cognitive maturity of adulthood. In addition to these stresses, the COVID-19 pandemic has also worsened pre-existing mental health The closures of higher learning institutions, loss of daily routine, transitions to online learning mode and restriction social connections has introduced additional stress and anxiety among higher learning students.
Additionally, online mode of learning and its challenges has increased pressure of independent learning. This has significantly impacted on students’ academic progress, which has consequently led to potentially higher rates of dropouts as well as those students opting to postpone year of study. These challenges have a compounding effect on the student mental health as they increase tension, anxiety and an unsettling state of mind. Furthermore, the uncertainty in accessing learning platform, delays in responding to queries as compounded by restrictions on physical access to responsible personnel. Access to such assistance has been restricted to only emails and phone calls, which have a higher tendency of being ignored and responded. The unresponsiveness over phone calls and email acts as another distressing factor for students.
Thus, by increasing academic stressors in a population with heightened pre-existing stress levels and a potentially reduced ability to rely on their habitual coping strategies – such as family who themselves may be experiencing heightened distress – the COVID-19 pandemic has placed an unprecedented mental health burden on students. In acknowledging the mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on students, higher learning institutions have embarked on a myriad of strategies to address this effect. Several universities have established a psychology helpline for the students. Others have strengthened their student coaching and mentorship programs especially for first year students. Also, most universities have attempted to lessen the burden of expense in accessing online learning platforms by providing data to their students. At national level, the government lobbied for telecomm companies to zero rate most educational websites in support of online learning initiatives.
However, current initiatives to circumvent the pandemic effects on students’ mental health have been isolated efforts by individual stakeholders. While higher learning institutions have taken the lead role in establishing forums and avenues to offer psychological assistance to their students, such efforts are not enough. Moreover, the identified stressors require urgent and well-coordinated interventions by all responsible stakeholders – higher learning institutions, government, private sector, students’ families and the community at large. It is thus not sufficient for the effects of COVID-19 pandemic on students’ mental health to be tackled only by higher learning institutions but rather well coordinated efforts involving all stakeholders is required. With COVID-19 still in our midst, stakeholders including the government, higher learning institutions, private sector, community and finally to the students family need to assume different roles and assist students to adjust in this pandemic era. Moreover, such mental health coping strategies need not be reactive to situations but rather proactively implemented. The interventions should be instrumental in creating a culture of caring and a mental health safety net around students. It should focus to implement an interdisciplinary and a multi-stakeholder leadership team that oversees the development and management of a comprehensive strategic plan supporting student welfare including mental health and reducing risks of substance abuse and suicides. The plan needs to ensure it is strengthening protective factors for student mental health by promoting the development of student life skills and resilience, help-seeking behaviors and fostering connectedness and belonging.
Maria Lauda Goyayi is a researcher at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, UKZN. She writes in her personal capacity.