Covid and students' mental health
As all readers know, in late 2019, the Wuhan Health Commission in China reported a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown aetiology. These were later named the novel coronavirus.
As case numbers ramped up and eventually evolved into a full-blown global pandemic, college students also faced academic and psychological challenges. The negative psychological impacts of the pandemic are the result of changes to their traditional mode of study (from in-class to online), the resulting increase in academic stress, reduced motivation, struggles with personal space, and the resulting financial concerns resulting in greater responsibilities at home. The psychological impacts of the pandemic are further compounded by the uncertainty involved in all of these challenges and the associated risks to one's personal and familial safety. It is easy to see how the lockdowns have increased student stress, anxiety, and depression and the numbers indicate that this is a reality; yet, the number of people seeking psychological assistance in clinics did not increase.
Globally, it is well established that students in higher education are prone to the development of psychological disorders. While higher education can be stressful, most college students' typical age of entry (18-23) is the same age range where many disorders (mood, stress, anxiety, and substance abuse) typically present. The World Heath Organization (WHO) recognises that this transition during adolescence and early adulthood is associated with negative emotions and self-defeating behaviours. When also combined with the pandemic and the resulting changes to home, school, and occupational norms, these developmental and academic challenges lead to a situation where adolescents are at greater risk of mental illness. The ability of students to effectively cope with these and other difficulties impacts their ability to have a positive experience in higher education. This is particularly relevant to Thailand, where many students have been studying online for over two years.
Thai student distress is widespread. While anxiety is prevalent, stress and depression are also major concerns. For example, a recent study found that among Thai university students, the prevalence of depression was 46.2%, stress 32.2%, and anxiety 47.6%. While the data on the increase in psychopathologies is available, the importance of mental health literacy is also relevant to address the needs of those afflicted. It is also important to recognise the stigmatisation of mental health issues in Thailand as this has an impact on help-seeking behaviours, particularly among students. It is unfortunate that many adults view mental health patients as dangerous, weak, or self-indulgent snowflakes.
While many of us are aware of the financial and biological impacts of the pandemic, greater attention must be given to the psychological impacts as well. The public would benefit from positive discussions of mental health problems and potential solutions. These discussions should dispel supernatural explanations of psychological issues, and they should attempt to encourage all of us to be more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours regarding those who have a mental illness. They should encourage everyone to avoid the stigmatisation so commonly associated with mental health and they should introduce positive psychology interventions to help people to understand that they can take steps to begin helping themselves. Positive psychology focusses on activities that promote positive emotions such as savouring, gratitude, acts of kindness, flow states, flourishing, and well-being. These interventions are empirically validated and are shown to elevate positive experiences, emotions, and our perception of our satisfaction with life. Regular engagement with positive psychology has a range of benefits, including the reduction of stress, the promotion of positive coping strategies, and an increased focus on positive cognitive and behavioural tendencies.
These discussions should also take place at schools throughout the country. It has become apparent that it would be appropriate for educational institutions to explore methods to assist students who are struggling with psychological issues. This is particularly relevant to young people in middle- and low-income countries such as Thailand. As education systems continue to experience multiple waves of pandemic-based closures and the traditional university-style lecture or face-to-face learning environment becomes less and less common, the introduction of a more positive view of psychology in general education curricula can help bolster student responses to various stressors and act as a buffer against some of the changes the pandemic has caused.
Assoc Prof. Douglas Rhein, PhD, is Principal Investigator-Psychology Research Cluster, Mahidol University International College