Pandemics, natural disasters, and wars have historically impacted the psychological well-being of humans. This is no different for students at UP during the first major pandemic in a hundred years. Increased psychological strain and feelings of despair are normal in a time like this, but there are ways to reduce these negative effects on students such as with mutual emotional support.

Research conducted on historically significant pandemics, such as the Spanish flu, or more recent smaller scale epidemics, such as the SARS and MERS outbreaks, have shown a correlation with increased mental health issues. There are various factors that influence the psychological welfare of a population, however, this can be exacerbated by an event such as a pandemic.The Spanish flu was the most recent pandemic that significantly affected the global community with an estimated 50 million deaths. Dr Linda Eskell-Blokland, Acting HoD of Student Counselling, explains that during the Spanish flu “the psychological and psychiatric impacts were profound at the time although apparently quickly forgotten once the pandemic passed. Anxieties and depressions increased in particular, and mental health deteriorated in general”.More recent epidemics have also highlighted how the disease and the containment efforts that are implemented impact different groups’ mental health. Professor Tharina Guse, Counselling Psychologist and Head of Department of Psychology, explains that “research showed that people who were quarantined during the SARS outbreak showed depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms in the long run”.

“Media coverage of these epidemics can also make people feel more anxious, especially if media coverage is in itself contradictory.”

The coverage of the disease, its conspiracy theories, and related fake news can become destructive. For example American President, Donald Trump’s controversial comment about injesting sanitiser as a cure for COVID-19. Prof. Guse explains that it is not only the type of information but also “too much information from media [that] could undermine mental health. These findings were evident after the outbreak of the 2016 Zika virus in the USA, and [the] 2014 Ebola virus”.Humans have a need to socialise, and the lockdown measures implemented across the world have increased people’s sense of isolation. Dr Coetzee, from the Department of Psychology explains that “many people who live alone went into lockdown by themselves. This will increase feelings of despair and loneliness. In South Africa specifically, the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reported an increase of calls to their helpline of people suffering from depression and anxiety”. Dr Eskell-Blokland also describes the effects of losing a loved one to COVID-19 because “people have lost loved ones sometimes without being able to be with them once hospitalised. These scenarios have left trauma and grief in their wake”.Dr Coetzee reports that she has noticed a lot of disbelief amongst people, and anger towards how governments have responded to the pandemic. In addition, Dr Coetzee reports noticing more self-preserving behaviour that “at times, did not bring out the best in humans because there were several reports on the increase of xenophobic behaviour”.Some groups have exhibited increased cognitive dissonance, “where for example, students in the USA flooded the beaches of California while professing that they will not become ill since they are young and healthy”.

there are ways to reduce these negative effects on students such as with mutual emotional support.

This is also a time where people have found ways to stand together and support each other in this time of need. Dr Coetzee explains that, “compassion and empathy increased along with a sense of social responsibility. This is evident in the number of outreach projects that were found to distribute food among poor communities and raise money for them”. Dr Eskell-Blokland also points out how this can be seen “in the clapping for health care workers, and others who must continue to provide services at this time. People shopping for others, cooking for others, sending each other messages and connecting with neighbours in the streets, and friends across the globe”.

During this pandemic, Prof. Guse explains that it is common for people to feel stressed and worried during an event of this proportion and that “feelings of helplessness, boredom, loneliness, and depression are also common”. People who were suffering from existing mental health conditions may also become more prone to experiencing intense psychological distress. Students also face stressors that might be exacerbated by financial insecurity, as well as academic uncertainty. Dr Eskell-Blokland relays that students are mostly worried about “their academic programmes, and the social isolation from fellow students and campus resources. Many are anxious about being able to complete the academic year, and are uncertain of what kind of support they can expect to receive from the university to aid them in their programmes”. Dr Eskell-Blokland also explains that the switch to online classes has left many students worried about the format of the online classes, and finding themselves in ineffective study environments.

feelings of helplessness, boredom, loneliness, and depression are also common

In a non-representative survey PDBY asked students how they are experiencing the pandemic psychologically. during this lockdown period. Many students reported similar experiences to what has been outlined above. Sally Etsebeth, a third year BA Information design student, expresses that her mental health has been affected negatively. She explains that “psychologically [she’s] been much more fragile as a result of the lockdown, because all the routines that helped ground [her] are suddenly non-existent, and having to adjust to living at home again after being moved out for 3 years feels like a step backwards in [her] life”.Ash Ludike, a third year BA languages student, relays her experience that, “[she] is an introvert, and the time alone doesn’t bother [her] that much. However, [she has] a few people that keep [her] grounded mentally, and not seeing them for long periods of time really does have its toll on [her] mental health”. Not every student is having a psychologically challenging period as Nicole Da Costa Cunha, a second-year Bcom Accounting Science student, explains that she “[feels] that this time for [her] was needed. After all the emotional distress [she] had been through the past two months, being able to travel back home to [her] family has been a blessing in disguise. This gave [her] the opportunity to catch up on [her] work and got rid of a lot of the anxiety [she] had earlier this year”.

Prof. Guse reminds students that they should “realise that emotional responses such as fear, worry, anxiety, anger, sadness etc. are normal responses to an abnormal situation”. Dr Eskell-Blokland encourages students to “reach out to the support services at the university [and] to find out what resources are available to assist them”. UP is supporting students in this hard time through making Faculty Student Advisors available to support students with their academic and study challenges. The Student Counselling Services is continuing to operate a virtual clinic, and the Lifeline care line is open 24/7 for students that need support. SADAG also runs Peer Support Groups, webinars, and interactive activities on their Facebook pages.

“Not every student is having a psychologically challenging period”

Prof. Guse encourages students to focus on what they can control such as that “[they] can look after [their] physical health by eating well; [they] can choose to limit social media”. She advises that students also structure their day in such a way that it resembles their on-campus schedule to maintain a sense of continuity, which includes spending time with friends over virtual platforms. Students are also reminded to look for positive stories in this time of crisis, and find ways to be compassionate towards themselves and others. Lastly, students can “seek help if [they] feel overwhelmed. It is a natural reaction, and there are strategies and support in place to help [students] navigate this unusual situation”.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a historic event that has impacted the world economically, socially, and psychologically. The psychological impacts of epidemics or pandemics have historically had a drastic, but often ignored, impact on the mental health due to several factors. Even though this is a time where individuals might feel emotional pressure, it can also be a time of human compassion and support, from people and institutions alike.

Illustration: Marchall Potgieter

MARYKE STEYNVAART