Students have been participating in a hybrid model of teaching by spending more time at home than at university, and this has a deteriorating effect on their mental health and support they have access to.
The typical experience of a student on campus includes hanging out on the lawns and walking up hills to attend lectures with friends. When the pandemic started it was easy to joke about covid-19 around cafeteria tables, because the situation felt so far from happening to us.
In March 2020, however, this all changed, and students had to face reality. They had been confined to having their homes act as their lecture halls, tutorial rooms and exam venues.
The onset of the pandemic means the university experience has moved beyond the typical halls and tutorial rooms a campus provides. Students are also removed from the support structures they are comfortable with on campuses, such as friends, easy access to lecturers and technology and mental health help if they needed it.
Students are among those dealing with the blows that accompany a life of almost two years of isolation, and learning through the pandemic has contributed to declining mental health in students.
“Before the pandemic, I faced issues with different aspects of my mental health, mainly anxiety with regards to other people. However, due to the pandemic, I became depressed with having no physical contact with others and being unable to go out for a change of scenery,” says Rizwaana Karodia, a second-year Wits health sciences student.
Karodia is not alone.
In a study published by Maretha Visser and Eloise Law-van Wyk, from the department of psychology at University of Pretoria, it was found that the mental health of students, particularly from the ages 18-21, took a knock during the pandemic.
Law-van Wyk told Wits Vuvuzela that as psychologists, she and her partner were motivated to start the study because of their interest in how international students would experience a global pandemic and lockdown restrictions in a foreign country. The study and their interest soon evolved to include the experience of all students during the pandemic and lockdown conditions, given their particular developmental phase of life and age-related needs.
Boikhutso Maubane, community projects liaison at the Wits Office of Student Success (OSS) and counselling psychologist, says: “Diversity adds to overall development in young adulthood.” She adds that students can figure out their identity through social cohesion which takes place at university.
According to the study, different factors had affected mental wellbeing, including “feelings of vulnerability to the infection, disruptions of routines, uncertainty about employment and finances and fears for the safety and wellbeing of loved ones”.
“Students also seem to miss social functions and their extracurricular activities, such as participation in societies on campus and outreach programmes,” says Law-van Wyk.
“Involvement in societies on campus holds a lot of value and buffers students from engaging in some recreational activities that could be detrimental to their wellbeing. Problematic pastimes and maladaptive coping pose a substantial risk to overall wellbeing and academic success,” she says.
Karodia explains how she lost her routine, saying she has access to campus only when she has her tests or lab work, which is roughly twice a week in the month when lab work takes place.
The most difficult factors that affected students were “academic isolation, not feeling in control, experiencing life as on hold, being isolated from family and friends and having restricted freedom. Some had difficulty obtaining food and some fell victim to crime or gender-based violence.”
Academic isolation leads to social isolation
In Karodia’s case, not being able to see her friends has made her more reserved. “Now, when I do see people, I don’t know how to interact with them due to spending so much time alone,” she says.
With Zoom, Microsoft Teams and pre-recorded lectures serving as the new classroom, many students have lost the social aspect of campus. There are also educational gaps that come with the new online forum, such as not being able to interact with lecturers if students do not understand a concept, or not being able to ask classmates for help. One way to combat this is through social media. But this is not always adequate.
Law-van Wyk says, “A student in one of the focus groups noted that although social media was helpful, it lacks depth when compared to being physically present with friends and classmates, and a lot of emotional information gets lost in texting. The student noted that communicating over social media is just not the same.”
Raafiah Sayed, a BA first-year student, says she is sad to not have a normal university experience. The first-years of 2021 have not been allowed onto campus for any classes or tutorials. Sayed has been onto campus just once, to fetch her student card, and has not been again for the rest of this year.
“Even though we can make use of technology such as phone calls, it is just not the same as talking to a friend in person and them giving you something as simple as a hug, which cannot be done through the phone,” says Sayed.
She adds that as a first-year she has been unsuccessful in building a safe space for herself in terms of university peers who may be going through the same problems, which would make the advice they can offer more valuable.
“My university experience has not been the best. I always imagined it to be something entirely different. I imagine that being online full-time is not the ideal first-year experience for any student. I do feel like I am missing out on the first-year experience of exploring the different campuses and meeting new people.”
The results of the study illustrate the fears students held about their academics, with many reporting decreased academic ability and fears that they would not finish the academic year. The mental health of students in this study indicated that students were “languishing, not flourishing”.
Students also showed an increase in generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is characterised as constant worry and anxiety of everyday things to an excessive amount. It is difficult to contain and control this worry about everyday things. Sometimes getting through the day is even difficult.
The OSS has reported a spike in anxiety, because the pandemic has holistically affected life. Maubane says, “Students are worried [whether they] are going to make it. It is more than getting marks.”
This lack of social interaction, and undertaking university on a screen for days, has negatively affected the mental health of Sayed, who remains severely stressed.
“Being at home all day staring at a screen has been quite the challenge,’’ she says. ‘‘It is difficult to remain in a focused and productive state of mind in an environment not suited to it. The lack of social interaction in online learning does tend to make me feel lonely and demotivated at times.”
No guidebook to help
At Wits, students can access mental health services through the Careers and Counselling Development Unit (CCDU) as well as the Office of Student Success, which focuses on health science students. Services include therapy sessions, support groups and workshops.
Karodia has been getting help through this office for three years, and during the pandemic support such as therapy sessions has been conducted online.
“While in-person or face-to-face contact remains the most effective context for counselling or therapy, in my personal opinion, I believe teletherapy is still highly effective,” says Law-van Wyk.
“[The] occasional disruption because of poor connectivity or power interruptions is easily overcome by a follow-up telephone call or rescheduling of the appointment,” she says.
Karodia says the services should be made more known to the students: “It was quite difficult to find out [about] them.” Despite this her experience with OSS has been pleasant and, she says, her therapist would check up on her when she missed a session.
Maubane says the OSS is working on advertising more and growing its advocacy groups, to help students beyond individual therapy
While she has personally never experienced challenges getting the help she needs, Karodia notes, “There are only two therapists at the OSS and they have been overbooked for the past year now, due to the number of students requiring support. They should hire more therapists.”
Maubane says, “There are multiple factors we need to consider [regarding this].” There are often availability clashes with students’ diaries, high demand during exams or results period, and even connectivity problems which may prolong the process.
Aside from traditional therapy, the university has also begun exploring other options. For example, there was a “de-stress zone” created on the library lawns on October 29, a Friday, for all university students to attend. Hordes of students were waiting to climb up a giant inflatable slide or race over an inflatable obstacle course, with no covid-19 protocols being followed. Other activities, besides jumping castles, include the rowing and taekwondo clubs, allowing students to take part in their mock activities.
The event was a collaboration between the Wits SRC, the university and the CCDU.
“Students get to come and jump and forget about their problems before exams,” says Mandisa Nyilika, deputy secretary-general of the SRC. She adds that even though it seems a childlike activity, the students really enjoy it.
“This is something that actually started in 2019 when we noticed a spike in suicides, and we are trying to continue the culture [of hosting de-stress zones],” Nyilika says.
It has been a long time since so many students have been able to come and gather at campus, she says, and it is uplifting to see during the pandemic.
Students have also taken it upon themselves to support each other in terms of mental health.
Mindful(I) is a youth-led NPO founded by Wits third-year BA student Mbali Shongwe in April 2020.
Mindful(I) is run entirely by students who have had their battles with mental health and now advocate for mental wellbeing. Services provided include support groups, fundraising, webinars and online events, as well as a mentorship programme where students can mentor other students who need mental health support.
Spokesperson Michela Passoni tells Wits Vuvuzela, “Much like most of my peers at the time, my mental illness and the challenges I experienced were things I suppressed and hoped to resolve on my own. After pushing myself to my limit and experiencing a mental breakdown, I then realised I needed support, and to address my mental illness from a professional level, which I was eventually able to do.
‘‘The process of seeking assistance, and realising just how inaccessible and expensive mental health care is, and how hard it is to find resources that work, pushed me to see how I could play my part in making things a bit better easier,” says Passoni.
“This led to the start of Mindful(I) in April 2020, with the aim of destigmatising mental illness and acting as a bridge between South African youth and access to psychosocial support.”
Universities and students did not have guidelines on how to handle the pandemic, especially since it put a stop to some of the coping mechanisms students used. Maubane of the OSS reports, however, that they have not seen significant unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse.
“Despite these very real challenges, students also demonstrated remarkable resilience during the pandemic and have been able to adapt fairly well to the lockdown restrictions and online and hybrid learning,” says Law-van Wyk. ‘‘Students attribute their ability to adjust to this new way of learning to the amount of support they receive from their university, their respective faculties and their lecturers.
‘‘It is therefore imperative that students continue to reach out to their departments for support, and that faculties, departments and lecturers encourage students to do so.’’
The mental health implications this disruption has presented for students in such a crucial point in their lives will have a long-lasting effect, it appears.
FEATURED IMAGE: A student enters the CCDU for help. Although the building is physically available to students, therapy services remain online. Photo: Sumaya Mamdoo.