Help our students help themselves

A policeman monitors the arrival of Form Five students at a school in Puchong to ensure they abide by the Covid-19 SOPs on the first day of school. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

THIS week higher secondary students returned to school with growing anxiety over their upcoming public examinations amidst the pandemic. It has been a difficult period for students dealing with online classes, isolation and uncertainty since last year, even more so for those facing postponed examinations. Studying for crucial SPM/STPM examinations that may impact on future goals may be stressful even in normal times, which is worse this year due to academic and social disruptions during the pandemic.

Many students are anxious whether the short time span between returning to schools and sitting for these examinations will affect their results. They are also often facing pressure from parents who are concerned about their academic performance. Such concerns may cause deterioration in the mental health of students, which in turn will hinder their preparation and concentration for the examinations. In this situation, what can students do to protect their mental health and well-being?

Self-help strategies

Sitting for SPM/STM examinations after a prolonged period of online classes in the middle of a pandemic is far from an ideal situation. Some degree of anxiety may be inevitable but the question is, how can students cope with their emotions, maintain calm and achieve more within such constraints? These self-help strategies can help students manage their stress better even if it is not possible to eliminate it altogether.

Facing anxiety: Identifying stressors, solutions and support systems

We often try to escape anxiety by sweeping it under the rug, which can be counterproductive as our underlying fears remain unaddressed and unresolved. Stress over examination preparations will eventually return bigger and larger that will make it even harder to deal with for students. Instead, facing up to your anxiety may help you manage it better.

Find time for emotional check-ins regularly tuning into mind and body despite your hectic study schedule. First, ask yourself how are you feeling today? Try to understand your emotions next, what is making you feel like that? What can you do to make yourself feel better? How can you at least mitigate, if not resolve, your problems? What help do you need for this from those around you?

Acknowledging your anxiety will help you understand stressors, explore solutions and manage emotions better. Remain connected with your support systems and share your concerns with peers, teachers and family members to see how you can help each other – remember you are not alone. Maybe you can help set up a (virtual) study group or at least offer emotional support among your peers.

Finding focus: Maintaining daily routine, study-life balance and study plan

There are higher risks of burnout and procrastination when we are feeling anxious. Too much or too little study will both cause further stress, leading to a vicious cycle of anxiety perpetuating itself ahead of the examinations. Alternatively, a healthy timetable with study-life balance will help you find focus, sustain concentration and prepare better amidst such pressure.

Make yourself a healthy routine for studying, leisure and sleeping. Following a daily routine will allow more consistency in your life to cope with uncertainty, reduce stress and improve mental health. Create a realistic study plan that can serve as a visual reminder of what needs to be learnt and revised in the coming weeks. If you prioritise your schedule with subjects requiring more time and attention, it will make examination preparation more manageable with less anxiety.

Try dividing your study materials into small chunks for better understanding and retention. Remain adaptive and flexible in your study plans by recognising we are going through unexpected changes during this period. Moreover, remember to give yourself time for adequate breaks in between your study schedule to remain alert and improve productivity.

Adopting self-care: Improving nutrition, exercise and sleep

We often tend to overlook our self-care needs while being overwhelmed with anxiety. If you fail to take care of your mind and body during these stressful times, it will further deteriorate your physical and mental health, hampering examination preparations further. Conversely, adopting better self-care with adequate nutrition, exercise and sleep will help keep yourself fit, healthy and energetic in order to study more productively.

Eating healthy food will boost your energy and reduce fatigue for better studying, while improving your immune system against diseases that may hinder your preparation. Exercising regularly for even short periods of time daily can help release endorphins that may make you feel more positive, optimistic and confident. Sleeping for eight to ten hours every night will help recharge your body, which will help you think clearly, feel energised and study better. Remember your body needs self-care more than ever during this period.

Role of community

Self-help strategies can protect the mental health of students ahead of SPM/STPM exams, but this will require teachers and parents/caregivers to foster a supportive environment within schools and homes respectively. Notwithstanding pandemic-related stressors affecting teachers and parents/caregivers themselves, we need a holistic societal approach for communities to serve as vital support systems in helping SPM/STPM students improve their well-being during this period.

There is no alternative but for enhancing mental health knowledge and awareness among teachers and parents/caregivers alike in in the community to support students. This will allow them to better acknowledge and respond to the emotional needs of students going through difficult times like now. Furthermore, better mental health literacy can help these important stakeholders give attention not only to the emotional well-being of students but also their own, which will in turn empower them for supporting those under their care now and beyond.

Dr Arman Rashid is a mental health practitioner, researcher and trainer. He is director of research & advocacy at SOLS Health-Thrive Well.

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