NAWAZ SARIF

The contagious Covid-19 has stimulated an irremediable health crisis and has increased the burden of mental illness among students. The deadly virus has wreaked havoc on millions of lives, pushing many of them to an untimely demise.

About 12 percent of Indian students, aged four to sixteen suffer from mental disorders. Further, approximately 20 percent of them show signs of mental disorders, out of which, 2-5 percent have serious issues, such as autism or bipolar disorder.

As the country fights against the virus, suicide has emerged as the second-leading cause of non-coronavirus deaths in India as reported in the data compiled by journalist Rachel Chitra. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics revealed that every hour more than one student commits suicide in India. Also, the report showed that the numbers are steadily upswing with 10,159 students dying of suicide in 2018, an increased from 9905 in 2017 and 9478 in 2016.

Amidst the pandemic, the young minds are unable to attend schools, cannot play, and engage in social intercourse. They begin to develop feelings of fear, loss, and helplessness that lead to an increase in their level of anxiety and depression. High-screening on the computer, feeling lonely and doing less in terms of social participation and excise have been affecting their physical as well as mental health.

They inculcate a negative attitude toward life, which leads to depression and health-risk behaviors, i.e., alcohol, substance abuse, discrimination, violence, poor dietary and inadequate physical activity.

Further, many students do not have the means of accessing digital platforms which causes another threat to their mental health. Many cases have been reported in several parts of India, in which students from marginalized groups committed suicides due to inaccessibility to attend online classes.

The cases of students’ suicides have been reported in Kerela to West Bengal to Assam to Punjab, and other parts of our country. We remember, Devika Balakrishnan, a class 10th student who committed suicide, in the Malappuram district of Kerala, allegedly over failure to attend the classes online due to lack of a smartphone or television at home.

Similarly, a 16-year-old class X student, Shibani Kumar Sau died by suicide after failing to attend online classes in Howrah’s Nischinda. The suicide cases also spark in the part of North-East India. A 15-year-old class 10 class student allegedly committed suicide in Western Assam’s Chirang district.

He ended his life due to the failure to attend online classes. In another case, a 17-year-old girl from Kotdharmu in the district of Mansa, Punjab has committed suicide as she could not attend the online classes amid the lockdown.

Mental illness is an outcome of multiple factors-induced psychological problems, and tackling these problems is difficult according to experts. However, they agree that it is preferable to talk about depression. It is time to virtually open the door and reach out physically wherever possible to those in need, who are struggling with mental health burdens.

Firstly, parental attitudes need to be changed towards children’s mental health problems. They must be aware that their children may have anxiety and depression issues. Home can be the first center where symptoms can be observed and identified before it is too late.

Teachers who are considered as next to parents can play a decisive role in ensuring children’s physical, social, and emotional health during this pandemic. However, unfortunately, what happens in educational institutions is that most of our teachers are not aware and fully equipped to have a sense of deeper understanding of the mental health issues faced by school-going students.

Many teachers are even ill-equipped with the knowledge to recognize the early symptoms of mental health problems in students. Henceforth, teachers should have an understanding of the different risk factors, which jeopardize students’ mental health.

Teachers should also be empowered with a strong support system in the institutions to tackle students’ mental health-related detrimental factors, such as racial or religious discrimination, financial problems, substance abused, juvenile delinquency, bullying, persistent feeling of sadness, suicidal behaviors, inferiority complex, and trouble-focusing behaviors.

Thirdly, educational institutions must provide virtual guidance and counseling to children who are vulnerable to health-risk behaviors such as drug abuse, tobacco consumption, and alcohol abuse. The resilience factors must be extended to students for better adjustment to difficult situations and to recover from mental illness through family support and love, peer supports, and by inculcating a sense of purpose in life, and helping them in conflict resolutions.

Adolescence is the stage of ‘stress and storm’ where greater changes happen in the physic-biological and socio-emotional realms of individuals. So, efforts should be made on the part of teachers to develop an understanding of the stage and associative experiences with students’ transformation from childhood to adulthood.

Besides, in such a case, mental health education is needed to be embedded into the school curriculum. It will help children to understand themselves and empower them with improved skills in inter-personal understanding and in coping with different unfortunate situations from the very early of their lives which will directly help them in later family, social, and professional realms.

In digital ecosystems, students attend classes sitting at home, so, teachers and parents need to work together through the ‘home-school online partnership’. To regulate online classes, teachers should establish a ‘spontaneous collaboration’ with parents. Schools should also encourage students to engage in extra-curricular activities at home. Several studies have shown that indoor-game, yoga, and physical exercise too help students grow positive mental health.

In the midst of this crisis, mindfulness-based cognitive therapies play a pivotal role in fostering physical as well as mental health among school-age students. Practicing various mindfulness techniques not only helps to cultivate physical health but also has psychological benefits. Mindfulness techniques help students in feeling happy and connecting with their immediate surroundings. It helps individuals with stress to become calmer.

Furthermore, it enhances students’ level of engagement. Students who have feelings of anxiety every day can try a breathing technique, such as box breading. Commanding and paying a closed focus on breathing is a scientifically proven technique of making individuals feel positive and good. So, teachers and parents need to encourage students to engage in daily mindfulness practices.

Seventhly, there must be strong coordination among government bodies, schools, communities, and parents to help out school-age children. Mental health therapy and counseling must be available for students on time. Besides, attempts must be taken to dismantle mental health stigma in common people through campaigns at the national level. Awareness of mental health is needed to boost through different digital media.

Further, a sense of togetherness and connection directly aid learners in avoiding risky behaviors and suicidal thoughts. Students will benefit greatly from caring, loving, and supportive conversations. Stressed students require social groups or other platforms where they can feel more grounded, supportive, and restrained from committing suicide by sharing their stress.

Ninthly, being constantly bombarded with fear-inducing news can have a significant impact on student’s mental health. Hearing anxiety-inducing news causes the body to go into a stress-response mode. Managing social media, social networks, and blogs will have a significant impact on how individuals feel and remain connected with the immediate milieu.

Henceforth, students should try to spend as little time as possible listening to, watching, or reading about the outbreak or other fear as well as anxiety-inducing news.

Finally, good quality sleep has a significant impact on how students mentally and emotionally stay engaged and happy. However, worrying can make falling asleep difficult. So, it is necessary to set a time for dinner and the activities that follow afterward.

It is preferable to avoid using cellphones at night and to keep other electric gadgets at least one hour before going to bed. Also, it is important for students to know that avoiding difficult topics and continuing with light topics that make them feel good and interesting will help them sleep pleasantly.

Nawaz Sarif is a senior research fellow and a former member of the Academic Council (AC) at North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong. He can be reached at: nawazsarif@nehu.ac.in

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