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Mental health in a changing world: The Students, Government and Universities

4 February 2021


Abdul Rahman Olagunju

It is a common practice that when people fall sick with literally the simplest of illnesses such as cold, flu or even headache, they take drugs or visit the hospital for proper treatments. However, when it seems the nagging habit becomes uncontrollable or when the sudden loss of interest and excessive worry or fear set in, people tend to ignore or battle it individually with a huge cost of pain and helplessness.

A clear distinction is often made between 'mind' and 'body'. But when considering mental health and physical health, the two should not be thought of as separate, but rather as two sides of the same coin. Poor physical health can lead to an increased risk of developing mental health problems and vice versa.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in 1948 defined health "as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” However, there's large disconnectedness between physical care and mental health care among youths, which recently become more prominent. Hence the need for more mental health awareness and management among students, especially at this trying time.

Keeping mental health in mind

The WHO described mental health as "a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to contribute to his or her community."

Although many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function.

Mental health is a major issue among students - as evidenced in several surveys carried out across the world- which reported a decline in their mental well-being since the pandemic started. Many students reported experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, depression, uncertainty, and a reduction in motivation or focus, or feeling overwhelmed.

Therefore, a plan to address the problem and to prevent the long-term mental-health deterioration of segments of the population at most risk is paramount during and post-covid-19 era.

A Pandemic of Anxiety

The outbreak of coronavirus diseases (COVID-19) came out as the most devastating and challenging public health crisis in the contemporary world. Apart from the soaring mortality rate, nations across the globe have also been suffering from a spike of the excruciating psychological outcomes, i.e., anxiety and depression among people of all ages. University students are no exception, as all the educational institutions are unprecedentedly closed for more than usual. In general, such closure triggers a sense of uncertainty about academic and professional career among the educands and intensifies persistent mental health challenges among them.

Due to the shutdown of schools and the inability to transition into working remotely, It makes sense that students in 2020 would be especially distressed about their situations. The pandemic has unearthed so much uncertainty. Likewise, students in the COVID-19 era might find it especially hard to think about the future, which is one of the hallmarks of depression, thereby giving them a sense of hopelessness.

Covid 19

Fighting idleness: A commit to discipline

Due to measures to contain the pandemic, about 1.2 billion learners are out of school and 73.8% of the world’s school population have been affected by school closures. This has caused a significant disruption in the academic programs and creates a gap in teaching and learning.

However, the strike of the academic staff union of universities in Nigeria had exacerbated the psychological effect of this among students; it has propelled idleness and enhanced loss of interest. In this regard, there are a couple of ways in which students can engage themselves in order to make the best use of their time through useful engagements, thereby maintaining their mental health. These ranges from volunteering, taking internship and leveraging on e-learning platforms - which can be done on platforms such as  Coursera, Futurelearn, Udemy, Edx, Udacity, Pluralsight amongst others, which offers different subjects including Biology & Life Sciences, Artificial Intelligence, Coding, Robotics, Arts and Humanities, Data Science and Personal Development, which can be introductory, intermediate, and in advanced levels; as well as OpenCourseWare Consortium - a community of over 250 universities and associated organizations across six continents, committed to advancing global educational opportunity, which include MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), Harvard Open Courses, Yale Open Courses, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, amongst others.

Moving from Advocacy to Action: The role of Universities

To minimize the growing mental health problems, the government, along with the universities, should work together to deliver promptly and accurately economy-oriented psychological support to the university students. Studies have shown that pressure, competition and stress experienced by students puts them at high risk for mental health issues. However, precise estimates of the prevalence of anxiety and depression in this population remain elusive. Nevertheless, students need and deserve thoughtful, evidence-based support in order to address mental health issues on their campuses with urgency and focus.

As universities are resuming, they can take important steps to support students who have experienced difficult times by:

  • Recognizing the crisis: Universities, including faculty members need to be aware that many students are struggling during the pandemic. Mental health should be addressed in the classroom. As an extra step, faculty members could acknowledge mental-health problems and discuss available resources as part of their instruction.

  • Think prevention: Universities should offer stress-reduction workshops and resources that could help to prevent mental health problems as students resume on campus.

  • Enhance remote counselling: Universities should explore options beyond one-on-one remote counselling, which could be the creation of peer-led support groups. This would give students a sense of solidarity and connection.

  • Ensuring inclusivity: A one-size-fits-all approach to counselling is likely to fail to reach many of the students who are most in need. All students need to feel comfortable. To achieve that goal, universities will need to offer different types of therapy in a wide array of settings from a diverse group of therapists.

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