Mental health problems in university students – A wake up call

Student mental health is a completely neglected area. The lack of facilities in the campuses, poor or no career advice and the uncertain future regarding career prospects is leading to high degrees of anxiety and depression. This is taking high toll . Considering that young boys and girls in the universities are our future, this is a neglect we can’t afford.

Recently the manifestations of this neglect of mental health in students have been highlighted in press after number of tragic events.  The daily  ” Nation” on August ,19 ,2018 reported, ” 4 students committed suicide within a span of few days in Chitral  , a remote district of KP just after announcement of higher secondary school results for not being able to achieve the grades , they or their parents were expecting.”

The daily ” DAWN” on September ,16,2018 ,published a study that reported high prevalence of suicidal ideation among young  students especially girls in Karachi”

Sadia Saleem and her colleagues conducted a survey about mental health problems in university students of 19 to 26 years age range in Lahore and reported alarming results regarding student’s mental health.According to their report 31% of the university students “fell in the severe category “of mental health problem.  ( FWU journal of social sciences ,Winter 2013 , Vol 7,No.2 ,124 -130).

In February  2019 a final year medical student was found hanging in his  hostel room apparently for no reported reason (ARY Medical students in other medical colleges have also reported suicides.

The college and university year of an individual are emotionally and  intellectually more demanding than almost any other stage of life. At this stage an individual faces a great deal of pressure and challenges connected to career, posing a variety of emotional and social difficulties. The situation gets worse in developing countries and especially in a country like Pakistan. Here there are Lack of resources, poverty , unemployment , social injustices, political instability, and unrealistic expectation of parents from the growing individual. As a result substantial number of university students experience a variety of mental health problems ranging from mild to severe level .

The more common problems faced by university student are mood disturbance, destructive behaviors, interpersonal problems and identity confusion. Number of studies have shown that  majority of university student claim to experience stress, anxiety , symptoms of depression  and un explained physical difficulties. These experiences have significant negative effect on their academic performance and their mental health.

In the background of above mentioned miserable situation bitter fact is that majority of students who have these problems do not receive any therapeutic or counseling services .In fact,  there are no formal psychiatric/counseling services available in most of the universities in Pakistan. There is no career counseling. Therefore students are under pressure to adopt one or two careers and when they fail to follow that, there is hug pressure from parents and peers. Consequently significant number of students at the time of stress resort to unhealthy coping strategies such as risky use of mobile technology, different types of drug abuse such as cannabis , misuse of anxiolytics and pain killers etc.  Recent rise of cocaine and especially ICE use in college and university students  is an alarming message for parents and education administrators. More over this continuing stressful situation in academic environment is leading to severe mental disorders such as depression, drug dependence, anxiety disorder and even psychosis ( Dunya News July ,2018).

What is the solution:

In a country where about 60 % of the total population( web desk Dunya News) is comprised of  youth, there is dire need for timely intervention. This can help to prevent substance abuse, psychiatric problems such as anxiety, depression and psychosis (a form of severe mental illness).  This can also help to avoid the great misery of families who have to suffer due to these illnesses.

Following are few suggestions to overcome this crisis.

  1. Teachers, administrators of educational institutions and parents should be sensitized about the nature of the problem by organizing seminars and using print and electronic media .
  2. Teachers need to be trained for early detection of mental health problems in the students and their timely referral to the specialist care.
  3. Student teacher communication need to be improved to facilitate the problem solving approach.
  4. Counseling services (comprising of multidisciplinary team)at each university should be made compulsory for registration with higher education commission. A multidisciplinary team should comprise of at least one psychiatrist, two clinical psychologists and two student counselors.
  5. Career counseling must be provided soon after the matric exams. Students also need to be given opportunities to gain some experience of work before actually further education. This will help to avoid focus only on theoretical teaching and help students to gain some experience of the real world.
  6. A major source of stress is ETA test for entry to professional colleges. Students, especially those opting for medical and engineering have a never ending source of stress, even after FSc exams are over. This year In KPK, the exam was cancelled or postponed three times, playing havoc with the students’ mental health. The ETA and admission process for professional colleges need to be streamlined on rational grounds.
  7. Students unions used to provide a healthy outlet for their frustrations, helped students build social skills and broaden their view. Unfortunately, these were highly politicized but banning these is not the answer. Students union should be restored with clear roles and responsibilities and with complete independence from political parties.
  8. Access to online and social media must be regulated, especially in schools. Parents need to be trained in dealing with adverse effects of social media, restricting screen time for children and encouraging more face to face family and social time.
  9. Almost all higher educational institutions do not take any responsibility for the hostels, where students reside. Since students’ numbers have exceeded much more than the number that can be accommodated on university campuses and almost no new investment is made in building new hostels, majority of students are forced to live in highly expensive and poor quality accommodations in the residential areas. The hostel accommodation needs to be inspected and regulated to at least provide minimum standards for students’ accommodation.
  10. Clear communication between students, parents and teachers is essential. Communication with parents must not be limited only to academic results. Each student needs to have a named mentor, who has responsibility for communicating with the students and parents. This will help to identify problems at earliest possible stage and identify possible solutions.

These suggestions may appear daunting. Actions only in a few areas can help tremendously to improve the mental health in students. Any investment in students mental health is investment in our own future and in the healthy society that will build the future of nation. We simply can’t afford to neglect it any more.

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