The global pandemic is no more news as COVID-19 ravages the world, dishing to us its obnoxious meals without remorse. What a year, 2020 has been. The virus has brought not only fear or risk of death from infection but also unbearable psychological pressure.
As a result of physical distancing measures implemented in response to COVID-19, schools have been shut since March 23 — for over four months now. Some schools and institutions in Nigeria have shifted to emergency online learning platforms.
Among students, COVID-19 has heightened the levels of psychological distress as a result of downturn in education and negative academic consequences.
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented mental health burden not only on workers but on students — this of course requires urgent intervention. Most businesses are back in operation and workers have returned to their livelihood but most students are still left at home with uncertainty concerning their academics. The economy has been reopened while various schools and institutions remain closed — increasing the risk of children being left alone at home without any adult caregiver.
Research has shown that loneliness increases the risk of depression, anxiety and heightens the feelings of stress. According to Dr Louise C. Hawkley of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago — loneliness may be less of a problem for older adults than it is for younger adults.
The academic disruption and delay would lead to reduced motivation towards studies and potential higher rates of dropout in the country — and increased pressures to learn independently as parents enroll their children to neighbouring tutorials and lessons — which of course come with zero physical distancing.
Furthermore, international research has shown that individuals with certain co-morbidities are at higher risk of COVID-19 mortality. The World Health Organisation reports that “evidence to date suggests that two groups of people are at a higher risk of getting severe COVID-19 disease — people over 60 years old and those with underlying medical conditions — such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer. This shows that children and young adults are generally less infectious than older adults.
Many have also agreed that the pandemic worsened pre-existing mental health conditions of students — mainly due to school closures, loss of normal routine and restricted social connections. In many cases these could have a profound impact on the nation’s mental health.
Dr. George Bonanno, head of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Columbia University, elaborated that loss doesn’t simply pertain to death, but rather individuals “experience grief over anything that feels like a loss of identity.”
The sense of being a university student when one is physically separated from school campus, the feeling of having spent years in the university working towards a degree only to graduate in one of the greatest recession — all of these concerns are enough to create a sense of loss for students.
In addition to the damaged academic session, a mental health crisis could emerge as many students have lost access to services that were offered by their schools. For children and young people who are already struggling with their mental health, this is an extremely difficult time for them. Some have lost many of their coping mechanisms, including contacts with friends or routines that help them manage or improve their conditions. To some having far more time at home would mean they could overthought things and were most likely to use negative coping strategies — like self-harm.
Also, other young people who never needed mental health support, are struggling to cope as the restrictions continue — as increased anxiety, problems with sleep, harmful alcohol and drug use or more frequent urges to self-harm.
Just a month after school closures in Hubei, nearly one-forth of children in Grades two-six (that is from ages five to 11) were reported to have symptoms of depression.
Also, during the pandemic, there has been a spike in sexual assaults and raping of minors — who were supposed to be in school.
The closure of schools to most students creates uncertainty in short term — also in relation to education and employment outcomes in the future with students in their final years anxious about the job market they will be entering soon.
Notwithstanding, with reduced mental health support, there will undoubtedly be a huge need for people — young and old – to find ways to look after their well-being and mental health. Some activities that have been credited and found helpful are — face-to-face calls with family and friends, watching TV/films, exercise, learning new skills, reading books — also writing and journaling.
The federal government needs to acknowledge the importance of young people’s mental health during the pandemic — schools and other citadels of learning should be reopened with safe guidelines to be followed. Keeping students out of school is not totally in the best interest of the students as millions of Nigerian students’ education and mental health have been compromised.
The entire performance of students depends on their mental health. No matter when school resumes teachers are still likely to face a pressing issue, how they can help students whose lives have already be disrupted by the pandemic to recover and stay back on track — and the earlier for this, the better.
––Tunde Henry Oluokun, Dept of Pharmacy, University of Ibadan.