Students’ mental health and their well-being are more important than ever before
by Intsab Sahi
It would be a safe bet to say that students in the year 2020 have a lot more to stress about than just going to class. Due to the global pandemic, campuses were forced to shutter up for the better part of this year leaving students little time to adjust to the idea of digital classrooms. Never before have students been obligated to adapt to such sweeping changes to their learning methods.
Prior to the worldwide onset of coronavirus, students across the spectrum had healthy outlets to channel their stresses on campus. From extracurricular activities to group study sessions, there were always plenty of activities happening in schools and university campuses to buffer the classroom stress.
Now, more than ever, the presence of a mental health professional for students is needed in schools and universities alike. Even though attitudes towards mental health are changing in Pakistan, there is still a long road ahead to becoming a therapy-positive society. To dismiss the need for a therapist on campus today would mean consciously ignoring the impact of rapid changes in routine, fear of disease, and newer challenges to surmount as campuses open after more than half a year.
Stigma Around Therapy
In Pakistan, seeking help and going to therapy is not commonplace -in large part due to the cultural stigma associated with it. Visiting a mental health professional is often considered unnecessary, and anyone who sees a therapist may have to do so in confidence.
More importantly, the common perception that whoever sees a psychologist or psychiatrist must have some serious mental disorder keeps many ways from the doctor’s office. Therefore, if a student is facing problems related to their mental well-being, there is a good chance they may end up seeking the help they need.
However, if schools, colleges and universities were to hire mental health professionals and encourage students to go in for counselling sessions, it may well signal an important shift in the negative perceptions associated with therapy.
Asking For Help
It would quite a reasonable expectation that students arriving back on campus this year would require more attention than before. Anxiety around the coronavirus protocols, social distancing, and the new normal is bound to affect young minds. Students returning to school have personal and psychological baggage stemming from the implications of the pandemic – these implications may stretch from the extensive isolation protocols all the way to the economic impact it has had on almost every family.
Prolonged duration spent in situations with dysfunctional family dynamics, depression, or just feeling lost, are just some of several factors that can come together to affect the personal and academic growth of students.
It is easy to overlook the mental well-being if you are a student dealing with coursework overload, adapting to the myriad of changes in your school environment, and the overall uncertainty looming over every facet of life including education. Students may not realize the need for counselling before it is too late, but schools know better. They can take proactive measures by hiring professionals and creating a safe space where the students can go to discuss mental health concerns plaguing them.
It is high time that we normalized the need for therapy, according to Naqsh-e-Fakhar, a thesis year architecture student from NCA. “It seems that we are learning to fight the war for survival at a much younger age now,” says Naqsh. “Everything has changed dramatically over the last few months. Our finances are all over the place, we are emotionally and physically drained, and to top it all off, there is so much work to get done before the thesis submission that we are all having mini-breakdowns every day.” According to the 20-something architecture student, “it would be a great relief to have a professional to talk to on campus because they could help us navigate through this feeling of emptiness, and underachievement.”
The Need of the Hour
Dr Tariq Aziz is a retired psychiatrist who now works from home and lends his expertise at a rehabilitation clinic for addicts believes, “It is crucial to have a psychologist on board in schools and universities, I cannot stress that enough.” The professional considers child psychology to be an oft-ignored matter in education and feels that children suffer most when their mental health issues are trivialized which is all too common in our society, unfortunately. “Every time a child underperforms, we start exerting more pressure on them to do well in class. Instead of treating the root cause of a student’s behavioral changes, we tend to worsen it by not seeking professional aid.”
According to Dr Aziz, “Children often mirror their family pathology.” When asked to elaborate he told Academia, “Children are often reacting to what is happening in-home or school environment by retaliating against the teacher, disrupting classes, or becoming aloof. ” The psychiatrist states, it is not always the child, but the family or the school bully who is the real problem. “We can only find out the deeper issue by probing into the matter, and if there is no one in school to counsel children in their time of need their mental health will suffer, and the real cause will go undetected.”
What To Do
The mental well-being of our students cannot be ignored, especially now. An on-campus mental health professional can determine through assessment the individual needs of a student dealing with something as common as exam stress to a more alarming eating disorder, depression, or a cognitive disorder.
“If our education system starts prioritizing mental health by recruiting professionals, then seeking help for mental health issues will not simply remain a thing you need, it will become a part of the education process, something you learn from that could help shape your future,” states Naqsh-e-fakhar thoughtfully.
To have a psychologist on campus can no longer be viewed as something that happens only in university campuses in the west. The Pakistani student is no different from their American or European counterparts. To think that Pakistani students are not facing body-image issues, fighting eating disorders, struggling with gender identity, are depressed, or are dealing with abuse would mean turning a blind eye towards a glaring problem.
It is time that we acknowledge that our students need all the help they can get, and for the concent of receiving therapy to becomes less of a controversial topic.
However, to encourage parents and children to seek professional aid, the aid must be made available first. To do so, policymakers and education stakeholders must come together and make it binding for the educational institutes to have a mental health professional on board.
It may be a long time before we achieve the above-stated goal but, in the meantime, we can at least initiate the conversation, pending for years.