Lives disrupted: Students anxious as pandemic forced to cancel their plans

“Mental health issues have always been stigmatized in our society and with the rampant spread of the virus, the situation has just amplified for the worse,” says Arouba Kabir, a mental health therapist. Kabir has been receiving more and more anxiety, depression, and addiction-related cases during the pandemic.

Along with the lasting effects on one’s physical health and body, the coronavirus has also disrupted careers, businesses, academic performances, daily wages, and the mental and emotional health of all, especially, students.

Amongst those affected is the 21-year-old Shivang Gaba, 21, a fourth-year media student at York University, Toronto. Gaba moved back to New Delhi when his university temporarily closed as Covid-19 spread last year.

He, just like the majority of other students, took his courses virtually but little did he know that this shutdown would continue for several months and that fear, anxiety, stress, and cluelessness would soon overpower him.

“It started smoothly as we were given extensions. But with time, it all became very stressful and I couldn’t keep up with my courses mostly because of the time difference. I also feel it was because I wasn’t in the right headspace to do college work while being here in India.” 

A survey conducted by the World Health Organisation highlights, “The pandemic is increasing demand for mental health services. Bereavement, isolation, loss of income, and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones. Many people may be facing increased levels of alcohol and drug use, insomnia, and anxiety.”

India houses the largest population of children and over 32 crore students were affected as Covid-19 spread last year.

One of them is Priya Yadav, 23, a chemistry graduate from Saint Thomas College, Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, who had no other option but to take a gap year because of the pandemic.

“I couldn’t appear for any entrance exam. After all, trains weren’t running at that time and the virus was still new. Taking a gap and being at home has taken a toll on my mental health,” says Yadav.

“The pandemic has strained the community and is leading to symptoms of increased aggressiveness and posttraumatic stress disorder, with a lot of people not knowing how to deal with it,” she continues. 

Uncertainty and coping

Jahnavi Chawla, 19, is a student at Delhi University, who changed her college, course, and future plans during the pandemic. She says, “Initially, I wanted to pursue hotel management and hoped to work at an airline or a reputed hotel, but the course required on-campus training. This wouldn’t have been possible because of the pandemic, so I switched to sociology which is purely a theoretical subject.” 

Chawla’s graduation started amid the pandemic and with just one laptop at home which was shared amongst her family of four, working on assignments. Eventually, her parents got her a laptop. But unlike Chawla, many in India can’t afford it.

For Priyanka Jha, a seventeen-year-old student and a migrant from Bihar, online education is still a long shot. 

“I loved studying and reading but last year my school remained shut for months. Even when it resumed, it was online and I couldn’t attend the classes as we have just one mobile at home with no data pack or WiFi,” says Jha.

“Even when I got access to the internet, I found it tough to navigate through the applications like Zoom, Google Meet, etc. as I am not well-versed or equipped with their functioning. So now I just read through whatever is kept at home and in a way, I barely attend my classes.”  

While more than 400 million people don’t have access to the internet in India and even if they do, the percentage of Indians who know how to navigate the digital space is meagre. This number further reduces as only about 15% of the population has access to internet connectivity in rural areas. 

This divide, the inequitable access to technology, and the required know-how acts as a big hurdle in India’s journey of becoming a digitally-equipped nation.

For Yadav, being at home also meant doing all the chores alone and lending a helping hand and as a result, she barely got time to prepare for her entrances for the next session.

Kabir believes, “All of this stress and uncertainty is putting the young minds at a heightened risk of derailing their mental health and letting sanity go for a toss.”

He believes that being confined to the four walls has forced many to go on an unprecedented rollercoaster of emotions and triggers, jolts, and creates havoc in our mental health.

“The transition from offline to virtual has not only changed the attitude of students towards studying or made them anxious but has also impaired their ability to grasp things, understand, be active in class discussions and give exams”.

“It is tough to concentrate during the classes because there is a lack of personal communication between the teachers and students. I had problems focusing because it’s hard to look at blank screens for hours and just listen to what the professor says,” Chawla told Maktoob.

A 2020 report released by the National Statistical Organisation (NSO) survey highlights the disparity in terms of access to online education and how this digital divide affects academics.

The concept of digital divide—the gap between those who have access to information and communications technology including access to mobile phones, computers, laptops and internet connectivity, and those who have no or restricted access—is not a new concept in India and is something that has been persistent for the most part. 

Financial voes

Gaba, who took lesser courses in the upcoming semester, shares, “It did not feel right to give the same amount of money for every course and complete them from sitting at home. They did not give us any concessions on our fees which they obviously should have as we weren’t using any campus resources but were working from home.” 

“Giving triple the money as locals in foreign universities is not at all justified,” Gaba adds.

Students are demanding all universities change their fee structure and give concessions as the pandemic has affected them indiscriminately.

On the other hand, Yadav, who decided to prepare for her exams with the help of YouTube videos shares, “I couldn’t afford to get online coaching because they’re all very expensive. Later, the channels I used to refer to for my academics also started charging. I felt left behind and defeated because I couldn’t get access to the full course.

“I almost decided to give up on studies because I was convinced I won’t be able to compete with people who are taking paid, customised online courses.”

Bound and restricted economically, she mentions that it was the financial crisis and the stigma associated with mental health issues that she didn’t seek any help for it. 

“Agony that everyone is facing is definitely going to leave a lasting impact in the form of posttraumatic stress disorder. We may find individuals finding it difficult to cope with personal and social interactions and inclination towards a more sedentary lifestyle which negatively impacts one’s health and immunity,” says Kabir.