By Saumya Rastogi and Srujan Srinivasan
The struggle of being an Indian student during the COVID-19 pandemic has crossed all boundaries of class, regionality, and background. While the digital divide has made it challenging for marginalised sections of students to access learning and resulted in many dropping out from the education system, for the privileged too, this period had not been easy. Many of them are, in fact, struggling to adjust to the reality that a fast broadband connection cannot keep the real connections of love and friendships alive, and a string of online classes and exams don’t translate to good learning and can have a damaging impact on their health.
With a year and a half of uncertainty over exams, visa procedures, isolation from friends and peers, as well as losing loved ones in some cases, the mental fatigue and the trauma of this pandemic have left an indelible mark on their young minds. Many students with no pre-existing mental health concerns have developed severe anxiety and depression too.
The fatigue of the pandemic
It is common wisdom that long uninterrupted screen time can not only affect your vision but also cause headaches. However, as schools and colleges moved online, the fact that students desperately need physical activities was barely factored into the new education format.
*Prasad, a high school student living in Chennai, told News18.com, “I’m sitting at the same spot for more than eight hours a day with barely any movement. Therefore, by night, I’m not only stressed but also exceedingly tired. I generally crash into my bed with a headache or eye pain, with no time for recreational activities.”
In a survey conducted earlier this year, titled, ‘Taking Care Of Children As They Learn From Home’, it was found that 22 percent of students took online classes from their bed. The study examined the home-schooling behaviour patterns of three hundred and fifty Indian school children between 3-15 years. With such trends, it should come as no surprise that students are showing a significant dip in energy level.
Niharika*, a 12th grader at a school in Coimbatore, told News18.com, “During the lockdown, I gradually found myself become slower, very lethargic, and have been unable to think clearly. I wake up without any energy every single day, and it terrifies me because I am generally a very energetic person.” Dr Chhaya Vaja, a General Physician at Apollo Spectra, Mumbai, pointed out that what makes online studying from home worse is the constant munching of junk food during classes.
“It leads to obesity in many cases and is obviously damaging to health. Additionally, they are not going out of their house, so they are not getting any exercise. The rest of the time, they are busy with their phones. All this is giving rise to heart problems in young people. So, with the kind of online model, we have at this point makes young children more prone to heart diseases.”
The doctor suggested that schools should think of ways to supplement physical co-curricular activities, especially sports. However, school authorities cannot do it all, mainly because children are at home nowadays, therefore, it is important for parents to monitor their food intake more diligently – replace junk food with salads and nuts, push them to go for walks on terraces, or do some sort of yoga or another exercise.
Strained relationships and friendships
COVID-19 pandemic also proved to be the toughest litmus test for young hearts. It affected friendships and romances, paused dating lives, and pushed young adults to become comfortable with loneliness and reconnect with their families.
Minal Lal, a student at the University of Delhi, went through a break-up as the lockdown started in 2020. But she recounts that having her family around seemed like a boon when she was dealing with the end of her relationship.
“The time spent at home helped me cope with the break-up in a better way. It would have been a lot more difficult if I was not at home,” said Lal. She explained that with the ‘much-needed break’ from socialising, she gained some perspective, which helped her revive some strained friendships.
Aditya Raj Singh Chauhan, a student at HIMT College in Chennai, said that this past year had shown him the true importance of family. “My relationship with my family improved as I spent more time with them,” said Chauhan. With no physical meetings, Chauhan found solace with his new group of online friends and is trying to make the best out of the situation. Things, however, have not been great for several students.
Vardhan*, a young Indian boy currently studying in Singapore, laments about his strained relationship with his girlfriend. According to him, with his girlfriend’s support, Vardhan sailed through the harsh waves of the virus during its early months unscathed.“I studied very hard, attended my classes and tuition online, and worked out every day to keep myself fit. I could not have done this without the support of my girlfriend. She kept me motivated,” he said.
However, this comfort lasted only for a few months within the lockdown, after which they were torn apart as they could not see each other. “We broke up and patched up many times. We regularly fought as we both felt that the other was not committed enough. As a result, we haven’t met each other for the last ten months or spoken properly for more than eight months,” said Vardhan.
There are many who complained that the friction between them and their parents increased as the generation gap gave way to miscommunication. It also did not help that young adults, who had left home for higher education found themselves under their parents’ scanner 24*7 after returning to their homes because of lockdown. In many cases, nit-picking often led to resentment and arguments and under such circumstances, many felt isolated and craved for an escape.
Aanya Wig, a student of Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, recounted how some of her friends became more distant because not everyone has good internet connections in their hometowns. “There was no human touch and interaction. I have become more isolated because of the virus,” said Wig.
Mental Health Woes
Aishwaryaa Kunwar, a student at Indraprastha College for Women, felt a barrier had gone up in her mind during the pandemic. “It has been difficult for me to interact with other people during this time. I feel like I have had a bubble around me, and I am unable to step out of it, no matter how much I try,” she said.
Priyanka Kapoor, a clinical psychologist at BLK Hospital, explained to News18.com that our long isolation during the pandemic had impacted our mental health deeply. “Humans are social animals. We need to interact with people, need different environments, and stimuli. And if you don’t get these three aspects, stress is bound to occur. Stress might manifest in many different ways; some might recoil into a shell while others can rebel against all the existing COVID norms or their home environment.”
Increased dependency on social media and the constant immersion in the news have also caused a harmful shift in the perspective of some young adults, who are grappling with the difference between authentic and fake news.
Agastya*, a class 12 student from Coimbatore, told News18.com that he started feeling “depressed, anxious and slightly paranoid” after consuming copious news articles on social media. “I follow all types of pages and accounts; political, conspiratorial, and news. I soon started consuming a lot of conspiracy theories and slowly began to lose my sense of reality. The overload of varied information made me wonder if anything was real, if coronavirus was a thing, if masks work, if vaccines are safe, and so on. All these things made me very anxious and paranoid,” he recalled.
Dr Kapoor pointed out that sensory overload from consuming too much social media can lead to tiredness and fatigue but also cause paranoia. “When we take a huge amount of information, it starts creating anxiety because it increases apprehension and starts a vicious cycle. We find it difficult to get out of it, and in the end, we become more anxious,” said the doctor.
Learning To Learn Online
As Indian education institutions went online due to the pandemic, the obvious technical challenges and the pedantic teaching methods made it a very cumbersome experience for most. Aanya Wig, who studies at Lady Shri Ram College, told News18.com, “Online education is impassive and impersonal. The lectures are like monologues. I study history, which requires interaction not only with teachers but also with peers. However, that has not been possible to the same extent as before with online classes.”
“There is an extreme digital divide, and that automatically put those from interior villages and cities at a disadvantage,” she added. Wig pointed out that despite the reduction in syllabus in different universities, the exam season was as stressful as before, with power cuts and failed internet connections giving rise to anxiety.
Aishwaryaa Kunwar, a student at Indraprastha College for Women, told News18.com, “On my first exam, I had a panic attack as I got very late in uploading my answer sheets.” She also said that the preparation for Open Book Examinations (OBE) was quite different. “I found myself questioning if I was learning anything or not,” said Kunwar.
Paused International Education
As cases increased during the second wave, many countries put travel bans on Indian flights, which consequently affected the education of several Indian students adversely. Zaman Rana, a student of Anglia Ruskin University (UK), told News18.com that waiting for the travel ban to be lifted has been a stressful experience in the past months. Rana said that he also had to put his own travel plans on hold until he gets fully vaccinated, which will takes months.
Manya Bhatia, who got admission into Trinity College, Dublin, said she had experienced delays in getting her visa due to embassy closure. Moreover, she explained that there is the additional stress of getting health insurance coverage for COVID-19.
Bhatia has too many questions about the future of her education – will she be able to attend college or study remotely? How expensive is it to quarantine in a hotel, which is a prerequisite for international travellers? However, more importantly, she has been asking herself if doing her master’s is a good idea at this time?
Salonee Gupta, a fresher at Carnegie Mellon University, said that the process of settling down in a new country without the help of her family (who cannot go with her due to the COVID situation) is an intimidating prospect. However, what has taken a toll on her mental health is not to go alone but to see her loved ones deal with COVID-19 as she prepares to leave for her university.
*Few names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals. They are all underaged.
Correction and clarification: A previous version of this article had erroneously quoted a student of Anglia Ruskin University saying that he has to be fully vaccinated to go back to the campus. No such vaccination policy exists at ARU for students to return to campus.