“The sense of an uncertain future” and online therapy for students during a pandemic – An interview with MAHE’s SSC7 min read
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a spike in student distress and suicide rates in India. The various challenges presented to students have aggravated their vulnerability to mental health issues and have simultaneously isolated them from potentially vital support systems. This unprecedented period has highlighted the need for educational institutions to become increasingly responsive to the emotional wellbeing needs of the students who may be facing difficulties in adapting to the changes while being confined to their homes.
The Manipal Journal got in touch with the Student Support Centre (SSC) of Manipal Academy Of Higher Education (MAHE), a psychotherapy facility for students in Manipal, to understand the readjustments in their process of providing a safe space for students to reach out and take care of their mental health through the pandemic.
Now that the Student Support Centre is operating online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what were the arrangements that were needed to be taken care of? How did the shift from conventional face-to-face sessions to online sessions take place?
When the news of the pandemic reached us, we realized that the only way we could continue to provide our services during this time was through online sessions. It also seemed imperative to do so. This is a particularly challenging time for everyone and we wanted to ensure that we continued to be accessible to students. We decided to move online in the last week of March itself. Of course, this involved multiple team meetings and discussions to sort out the logistics. Since we had begun to operate on a rotation-basis in keeping with the precautionary measures issued by the authorities, we were working from home some days of the week. This meant that for us to have access to our appointments and other essential records, we had to move a lot of the administrative work online too. The next order of business was getting the word out so that students knew how to reach us. We contacted all our clients who already had appointments with us and made the announcement on our Instagram page. Our Student Advisory Board also helped spread the word, as did our clients.
How is the scheduling of sessions and therapists managed/carried out? In terms of initial hurdles, what were the problems faced in streamlining the process of the online system and getting students on board?
All the therapists are working six days a week, barring holidays, whether it is from home or the Centre. We have a roster in place for this. The appointment schedule is accessible to all of us online and students only need to send us an email to set an appointment or for any queries. There were, of course, a few inhibitions that all of us – clients and therapists – had with regards to online sessions, as is natural when it comes to anything new. It was only when we came to accept that this was our only available option at present that we were able to move past those inhibitions.
How have the students responded to this unprecedented change? Has the number of students who seek support fluctuated in comparison to the time before this? If so, how and what do you think could be the reason?
While we still have a significant number of students reaching out to us every day, it’s definitely lower than earlier. A few of our ongoing clients have refused online sessions too. We believe that a lot of students may not have privacy in their homes that would be required for a therapy session. There may be others who are resistant to the idea of speaking to their therapist through a screen or who may want to wait till face-to-face sessions become available again. If some students still aren’t aware that SSC is open for online sessions, we hope that initiatives such as this could help spread the news.
Some students might not have disclosed their mental health issues to their parents and that they are seeking help for it. Some of them might not be in a safe and secure environment at home, but the situation has forced them to stay there. How has online therapy been for such students?
Unfortunately, this seems to be one of the main reasons why a few of our clients haven’t been able to continue their sessions with us. For those who have, they’ve had to come up with creative solutions to arrange for a private space and we hope that the therapy sessions have provided the sense of safety and hope they lack in
It is extremely crucial that the students are comfortable while talking to the therapists. Some may also have concerns about their privacy during online sessions. In line with these, what is being done to ensure comfortableness and confidentiality?
One of the first things we did once we decided to move online was to draw up a set of guidelines and update our informed consent form to specifically address this issue. While the sessions are conducted through secure and private videoconferencing, there are always some risks with services via virtual platforms. Our clients are made aware of these risks but also assured that there will be no recording of any of the online sessions and that we’ll do everything in our capacity to ensure that confidentiality is maintained.
There has been a rise in the number of mental health-related issues during the lockdown due to a lot of factors. Have you noticed any common links/triggers among the students when they have come forth with their issues, especially in connection to the lockdown? If so, how much of an impact could it have in the long run?
Isolation from peers, maintaining a semblance of routine and productivity, and the sense of an uncertain future are probably the most common themes which have emerged. A lot of students are also grieving over the loss of what they imagined would be the most memorable time of their college life. This is a hard time for final year students who would be graduating without being able to say goodbye to their peers and teachers in person. Due to the lockdown, many distractions and coping resources that we have been used to are now closed to us. This has caused many mental health issues that were lying dormant to suddenly erupt or resurface, or which were earlier ignored and can no longer be. While this may be very distressing, we believe that this is also an opportunity to work on these issues which would have anyway affected us in some way or the other at some point in our lives. As this is the first time in most of our lives that we are experiencing a pandemic, there is no way to gauge the long-term impact at this juncture. However, we, as a species, have proved time and again that we are amazingly resilient. We have withstood wars, environmental calamities and multiple disease outbreaks, and have thrived. We believe that, just like any crisis, with adequate support and resources, we can come out of this even stronger.
Lastly, what do you have to say to students regarding the importance of mental health and keeping a check on it during these times?
Since these are unprecedented times, bringing with it changes in our lives we had never felt the need to prepare for, coping could be difficult. This could lead to severe mood fluctuations, sleep and appetite disturbances and a struggle with daily activities. While some of these could be normal effects to the extraordinary circumstances that this pandemic has brought with it, if they remain persistent, they could give rise to mental health issues. It is, therefore, imperative that we keep a check on these so that we know if and when we need to seek help.
To contact SSC, visit: http://SSC,MU
Ph: 0820 292 2430
Featured Image Courtesy: SSC/Official website
Edited by: Vibha B Madhava