The words ‘college campus’ immediately bring to the mind a picture of happy students from diverse backgrounds interacting with each other, sharing their sorrows and joys, learning together, and enjoying college life in an eclectic environment. The students interact with their faculty without inhibitions and approach them with ease. This is the picture we at Symbiosis have visualised since our inception in 1971, especially for foreign students from African and Asian countries. Over the years many international students and Indian students from across several states of India have also come here to study, attracted by the home away from home and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – The world is one family philosophy that we live by.
Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating effects on our mental wellbeing. It has not spared anyone. The education sector, to which I belong, has been hugely impacted by the enormous transition and changes it has had to go through. Almost overnight, education institutions, faculty and staff, and students worldwide had to change their entire reality of the teaching-learning process. From face-to-face classes, they had to migrate online (those who were fortunate enough to do so) and in a short period, they were forced to learn new ways of learning. From the active social life that they had been leading with friends, they were now confined and isolated at home with parents who were also struggling with having to work online (and in many cases with loss of work). The effects have been so multi-layered that even now we are trying to learn about the many consequences of this forced isolation and dependency on the digital world. I believe its effects will continue for a considerably long period.
Mental health on campuses has become a topic of concern around the world with increasing rates of depression, anxiety, substance use, and even suicides amongst students. Against this background, the time has come for us to pay attention to mental health, which is an integral aspect of our being. Mental health contributes significantly to our productivity and functionality, and therefore relevant stakeholders must work collaboratively towards building a thriving community on our college campuses.
Just as good immunity is a protective factor against the deadly virus, building the muscle of resilience is a protective factor for our mental health. I found this definition a good one: Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress (American Psychological Association, 2014).
The positive factor here is that resilience can be developed not just at an individual level but also as groups or as communities. When universities, educational institutions, or colleges face challenges, then it becomes imperative for various stakeholders to come together, communicate, connect, and strategize creative solutions to problems, which will help develop resilience.
Supporting mental health on campuses will also require the presence of a robust team of mental health professionals, the size of which will depend on the total number of students, staff, and faculty members. The role of this team should not be limited to providing counselling services to stakeholders but broadened to building campus resilience. Facilitating the creation of peer support groups, mentor-mentee systems, and other first responders for mental health crises can be major contributors in building campus resilience. I look forward to the day when all educational institutions become holistic health-promoting institutions.
Building campus resilience cannot be the sole responsibility of mental health professionals but will require the involvement, contribution, and commitment of all who are concerned, on the campus. Therefore, educating all stakeholders to understand the meaning and importance of mental health and resilience would be the first step towards supporting mental wellbeing on college campuses.
Let me end on this note,
If we want to help vulnerable youngsters become more resilient, we need to decrease their exposure to potent risk factors and increase their competencies and self-esteem, as well as the sources of support they can draw upon.
Emmy Werner (1995)
The author is Chair- FICCI HE Committee and Pro-Chancellor, Symbiosis International University.