7 April 2022

Mental Health Struggles and Experiences: How do ASEAN university students cope in the virtual setting?

AUN Writer Team

By Caryl Nikki D. Buenafe, AUN Intern

With the latest COVID-19 records, Southeast Asia has tallied 20,008,584 cases and 323, 275 COVID-19 related deaths since the onset of the pandemic last March 2020. (CSIS, 2022) The abrupt global turn of events that occurred over the past two years had required citizens to adapt to an unfamiliar shift of living. It caused detrimental consequences to the economy, education sector, and employment. (Balakrishnan et. Al, 2021) Hence, millions of workers and students have been forced to gear towards a virtual setup consequently requiring financial and technological privilege to maintain sustained connectivity and productivity amidst lockdowns, uncertainties, and economic recessions. As the region is still plagued by prevalent health and socioeconomic disasters resulting from the Covid 19 pandemic, ASEAN youth remain struggling to cope in a region-wide mental health crisis as governmental and higher education institutions, as well as youth organisations, are taking necessary steps to help improve the situation.

Since the start of the Covid 19 outbreak back in late-2019 and early-2020, the impacts of the pandemic lead to an alarming increase of mental health issues across all demographics in the ASEAN region. For instance, in Malaysia the suicide cases across all age groups have doubled in the first five months of 2021 where in a report issued by the Royal Malaysia Police recorded a total of 468 people committed suicide – tallying 94 suicide cases per month compared to the 51 cases per month in 2019. (Sarwar, 2021) Moreover, Befrienders Kuala Lumpur, an emotional support help centre in the country, also recorded a staggering 45% surge in calls from March to June 2021. (Hassan, 2021) The health crisis experienced by Malaysian youth expanding from physical to mental manifestations due to isolation, loneliness, health anxiety, academic stress, and economic downturn have called for a collective movement to decriminalize suicide in the country.

Likewise, in Singapore, university students and professors are facing a similar decline in mental health and well-being as they navigate through the pandemic situation. A study by the National University Health System's Mind Science Centre (NUHS) indicated that 83.3 percent of students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) reported having a high level of stress (Qing, 2022). Meanwhile, more than half of the students who participated in the survey reported feeling lonely. According to Assistant Professor Wilson Tam, principal investigator of the study, having to spend more time with families that uphold strict family roles, rules and regulation due to lockdowns and home isolation can lead to development of depressive symptoms among adolescents. This is because many students find it harder to communicate across generations and find common solutions with their less flexible family members. The aforementioned situations in Malaysia and Singapore reflect a much greater crisis the Southeast Asian region is facing in terms of mental health and well-being among its youth.

Several measures have been adopted by individuals, organisations, governments and relevant institutions to combat this issue since the world was plunged into the Covid 19 pandemic.

On the level of individuals, changes to proactive and creative lifestyles seems to be a commonly adopted solution to help students cope. In a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts entitled “Experiences and Coping Strategies of College Students during the COVID-19 Pandemic”, it revealed that 45% of the 500 student respondents in the University of Toronto utilised proactive and creative coping strategies that involve establishing routines (physical exercise, cooking, meditation, and modifying their working environment) and finding new hobbies. Moreover, many respondents also coped through maintaining social connections with their friends through messaging applications such as Facetime and for some they enjoy their time with their families. (Logel et. al, 2021) These are essential measures that can help youth combat loneliness and the sense of isolation due to long-term lockdowns and quarantine.

Meanwhile, youth organisations, governmental offices and higher education institutions across the ASEAN region have also been making necessary steps to ensure a greater impact in solving the mental health crisis faced by youth in the region. In October 2020, the ASEAN Youth Forum facilitated a discussion involving 60 young Southeast Asians to participate in their segment entitled “open space”. Majority of the participants have been similarly experiencing isolation, health anxiety, and academic stress calling for a more proactive mental health awareness and advocacies in their respective countries. M, a 3rd year university student from Indonesia, was surprised with the sudden forced adjustments that accompanied the quick spread of the virus. Internet problems, stressful academic workload, pandemic anxiety, and a degrading mental health condition have been one of the many challenges hurdling their overall performance. (See reference: https://aseanyouthforum.org/yos5/) Meanwhile, the Philippines’ Commission on Higher Education encouraged the “deployment of available flexible learning and other alternative modes of delivery in lieu of on-campus learning” amidst the persisting socio-economic concerns. Among such concerns is a large digital divide among Filipino students in which 45% of Filipinos and 74% of public schools in the country do not have access to the internet. This is only one of the many concerns that catalysed students, instructors, professors, and student councils to file online complaints arguing that learning devices and internet connection in a developing country like the Philippines remain a privilege. On top of these, the implementation of lockdowns and increase in the academic workload continue to make online learning difficult. Petitioners echoed their sentiments through social media by utilising hashtags such as social media hashtags like, #NoStudentLeftBehind, #EndTheSem, #NoSchoolLeftBehind, and #EndOnlineClasses (Joaquin et.al, 2020).

Similarly, several higher education institutes in ASEAN have pushed for a wider and efficient mental health campaigns in order to address the struggles and safeguard the wellness of many university students in the region. For instance, the Psychology and Counseling Management Section at the University of Malaya in Malaysia launched an online e-counselling service to all the students, faculty, and staff of the university. On the other hand, the Universiti Teknologi Petronas which is also located in Malaysia organized webinars and forums which aim to discuss the obstacles and effects of mental health challenges amidst a global pandemic. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, to minimize the gap of educational technology privilege amongst all sectors, 95% of the universities employed online learning through the Online Learning System Program (SPADA) which assists the learning management system in tertiary education to provide free online lectures and course materials to the students. (Joaquin et.al, 2020) In the Philippines, the University of the Philippines mobilised a 4-component program called the “Sandigan, Sandalan: Training and Advocacy Programs for Mental Health” to strengthen the university’s approach with regards the mental health support system for the institution’s constituents. The components of the program includes the following: 1) the Directory of Mental Health Service Providers which comprise of referral systems that contain lists of professionals and institutions that students could consult concerning their mental health needs; 2) Training on Mental Health Promotion in the Teaching-Learning Environment; 3) Training Program for Peer Mental Health Advocacies; and lastly, 4) Student Mental Health Advocacy Program which incorporates student-led advocacies and initiatives on mental health promotion. In Filipino terms, sandigan and sandalan refer to either a person or thing which can be relied upon to provide support (Romualdo, 2021).

The mental health situation faced by several countries in the ASEAN region has highlighted the need for a more proactive mental health framework institutionalised by university administrations and government for the benefit of tertiary students. It is important for relevant governments, institutions and higher education institutions to identify and establish full comprehension and awareness of the gravity of the mental health crisis the ASEAN youth are experiencing. Additionally, institutions must provide pro-student learning programs, policies and guidelines that are inclusive of both learning benefits and mental health awareness.


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