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Mental Health in Indian Academia during a Pandemic

As the new session starts in different universities, colleges and schools, online education has become the new normal. Few institutions which are planning to reopen are preparing themselves for widespread infections and possible deaths. SOPs are being released for conducting examinations, classes and other safety protocols are also kept in mind. However, what goes unnoticed amidst this hustle is the mental health of these young students, researchers, teachers and professors. Suicides of school students and scholars in higher educational institutions have been a matter of concern all through the lockdown. What we have started calling the ‘new normal’ is not a very normal situation.

Mental health is one of the biggest challenges in the times of COVID, yet it has received very little attention. Inability to afford online education, unemployment, reduced productivity, the crisis of jobs and internships, lack of foreign opportunities, and loneliness are few causes of mental health issues in current times. There have been efforts on the part of the government and other NGOs to provide smartphones, internet facilities and to reach out to the underprivileged section of students, but it has come too little and too late. As the great Indian Education system takes the digital leap, a massive section of these children still struggles to make their way into the digital world. Many have argued the advantages of online education, especially when we see the overwhelming number of webinars that are being organised each day. Students from remote colleges are getting to hear celebrity professors and interact with them in real-time, something that has been a distant dream for many. The cost-effectiveness of online education for those who can afford a smartphone and internet facilities is also to be noted. Most of the departments who are arranging these webinars would not have been able to host such frequent conferences and lecture series for lack of funds. So even if online education is a problem in schools and lab-based education, Humanities and Social Sciences Departments are ready to normalise this online methodology. Nevertheless, as we call this the new normal let us not forget, that this not only promotes the digital divide, but the continuous flux of webinars could cause anxiety and insecurity about the lack of productivity.

Like the social media productivity challenges during the lockdown, academia too has created its version, which has led to a mad rat race that is toxic. This crisis of a pandemic has become a sabbatical for increasing one’s productivity, and for churning out papers, lectures and internships. This productivity may be a way of coping for many, but this will soon become a peer pressure that forces young researchers and students to unhealthy competition. Newton may have produced his best works while working from home, but we should not forget that not everyone needs to be a Newton. This need to attend webinars, lecture series and conferences is farther reduced to a farce when we see the urgency of the participants to collect certificates. So what purpose does this all serve? Only a tiny section is benefitting from this, the rest are either seeking a productive distraction amidst this crisis, or they are burdened with guilt for not performing enough.

Like Amal from Tagore’s play The Post Office today we all sit on the sill of our digital windows looking at passers-by. What keeps us distracted from the pain of surviving this crisis is the view outside our windows- sometimes it is a fancy video of our friend dancing or the recipe of some exotic dish or a lecture from a celebrity professor. This distraction is a two-way journey it keeps us entertained and engaged as we see it and those who perform they get their share of validation and engagement. However, like Amal, we cannot help but feel tired and anxious about this uncertainty. We wait for the vaccination, which will relieve us of this imprisonment.

There is no alternative to professional care in case of mental health issues, but sensitivity towards our colleagues, juniors and peer group may significantly change the work environment in the times of a pandemic. This article in the Science Magazine offers valuable advice pertaining to mental health crisis of academic scientists. The first step is definitely to accept that this is not the new normal. This acceptance cannot be expected from individuals unless it comes on a large scale. IIT Madras has declared a no-academic week keeping in mind the mental health of the students. Students have to juggle their end semester examinations with preparations for CAT and placement; to balance all of them amidst a shorter semester is a bit too much to ask for! Other universities and institutes should keep this in mind as they plan a COVID semester. This global crisis is an unforeseen situation, and it has given us a much-needed opportunity to sit back and reflect on the toxic habits we have developed over the years, it would do humanity great deal good if we leave them back and not snowball it further.