WHEN the movement control order forced lessons to be conducted remotely, many students found the switch to be exhausting as their learning environment drastically changed.
A survey conducted last year examining how the pandemic and lockdowns had affected university students in Malaysia found close to 30% of the student population experiencing varying stages of anxiety.
Among them, 20.4% experienced minimal anxiety, 6.6% moderate anxiety and 2.8% extreme anxiety, the “Psychological Impact of Covid-19 and Lockdown among University Students in Malaysia: Implications and Policy Recommendations” paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, read.
Prof Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj told StarEdu that students formed a significant portion of individuals who had reached out to the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA) since the pandemic began, often by themselves or through their parents.
“This is worrying because such stress may lead to clinical conditions like anxiety and depression, which can have long-term implications on students even after the pandemic is over. Issues of self-esteem will still linger on and might affect them as young adults.
“The symptoms of anxiety can affect an individual’s ability to conduct daily activities. If severe, it can cripple a person, even bringing about suicidal tendencies. Interpersonal relationships can take a toll too, ” said the MMHA president.
Based on feedback from MMHA clients – comprising students, office workers, young executives and a growing number of health workers – inadequate guidance on lessons, maintaining a routine, distractions at home and longing for the physical company of peers were major stress factors for students.
The association provided 3,000 hours of counselling and psychology support to 467 clients from March to December last year. One third of these clients were upper secondary school and tertiary students, said Dr Mohanraj.
“All these cases were related to Covid-19, meaning psychological distress resulting from the pandemic and its implications and consequences, ” he said.
He added that students of different age groups are likely to face different stress factors, citing examples of primary pupils missing their school environment and secondary students feeling anxious about their exam performance and being unable to pursue a tertiary education of their choice.
He warned that students undergoing psychological distress might resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking and smoking.
Fractured sleep can lead to excessive and prolonged use of sleeping medication, which can be a source of addiction too, he cautioned.
Teach for Malaysia (TFM), a non-profit organisation that works closely with high-aid schools serving B40 communities, noted that students and teachers alike had faced various challenges since lessons were conducted remotely.
Students in these communities, said TFM chief executive officer Chan Choon Seng, are likely to face anxieties about online learning as they are hampered by various other external pressures, such as worrying if their family can make ends meet during the pandemic.
The digital divide, he opined, is a source of anxiety for most students. Quoting TFM surveys, he said some 60% of B40 students were unable to engage in online learning due to it.
“The main challenge for them is having access to a learning device. Even if that is sorted, technical frustrations surrounding connectivity and having to share a device can affect learning experience.
“Students have also reported receiving a lot of work from teachers. This, coupled with distractions and in some cases, lack of support at home, makes it hard for students to concentrate, ” Chan said.
Let’s do our part
Parents and teachers, said Dr Mohanraj, should not be judgmental when dealing with children who develop psychological distress. Instead, they should try to understand the struggles their children are facing.
“Encourage students to talk about their feelings. It is good for parents and teachers to familiarise themselves with the early signs of psychological distress in children, ” he said, adding that stigma remains the primary reason why many individuals are reluctant to discuss their feelings with others.
He recommends having family meals and conducting activities together during the MCO to bond and interact with children.
For students experiencing anxiety or distress, Dr Mohanraj advised: “It is important to maintain a routine and mimic the school schedule as closely as possible. Take periodic breaks, have sufficient sleep and eat nutritiously. Interact frequently with your peers, albeit online.”
“We will get through this together. Appreciate the silver lining of being able to spend quality time with family and staying safe when many others have succumbed to the virus. It is important to stay well physically and mentally to face the post-pandemic situation, ” he said.
While students’ reception to online learning remains a mixed bag, Chan said some had adapted well and were more expressive without having to cope with the pressure of face-to-face presentations.
“To ensure students’ well-being, we check in on them regularly and encourage our teachers to allocate some time before their lessons for students to express themselves. This allows them to talk about their emotional and mental states.”
TFM, he said, has created a specially curated website providing recommendations on remote learning and mental health support resources to help schools, parents and students navigate the challenges of online learning.
“Online lessons cannot be the same as in-person lessons. We cannot replicate what happens in a traditional classroom as it will not be as effective.
“Online lessons must be more engaging to capture the students’ attention and capitalise on their interests if we are to inspire them to learn, ” he said.
To create a more conducive learning environment at home, Chan recommends setting up a dedicated physical space with strong WiFi connection for studying. He also emphasised the need for constant communication among students, parents and teachers.
“Creating a smooth online learning experience requires a multi-pronged approach and cooperation of everyone across the board. There will be challenges, but we have to face them, ” he said.