Deputy Vice Chancellor Prof. Ruthie Rono leads discussion on mental health and its impact in Higher Education during COVID-19

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By Taigu Muchiri

The Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academic and Student Affairs Prof. Ruthie Rono joined University leaders across the globe to discuss mental health in Higher Education in the age of COVID-19. The discussion was organized by the Alliance for African Partnership in collaboration with the Michigan State University African Studies Center, the Tanzania Partnership Program, and University World News–Africa. She was joined by Prof. Lamine Ndiaye, Professor of Anthropology, Cheikh Anta Diop University, Jonathon Novello, Health4U Consultant and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Michigan State University, Lucky Odirile, Director, Career and Counseling Centre, University of Botswana and the session was moderated by Prof. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza.

The United Nations has raised a red flag on the increased cases of mental health and the decreased levels of mental health care. In its report, it is clear that there is high prevalence of distress during COVID-19; people in Iran, USA and China experienced 60 percent, 45 percent and 35 percent increased distress levels respectively. In addition, cases of depression and anxiety have been recorded in various countries. A study conducted in Ethiopia, in April 2020, reported an estimated 33 percent prevalence rate of symptoms consistent with depressive disorder, a 3-fold increase compared to estimates from Ethiopia before the pandemic. The report further shows that people may resort to different negative ways of coping, including use of alcohol, drugs, tobacco or spending more time on potentially addictive behaviors such as online gaming. Statistics from Canada report that 20 percent of the population aged 15-49 increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic.

The global intergovernmental organization notes that mental health issues are likely to be ignored during the pandemic largely because all resources are being directed to fight the spread of the virus. This means that people with pre-existing mental health challenges have limited access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment. Additionally, statistics show that low and middle income countries have 76 percent and 85 percent of their population with mental health conditions and receive no treatment. Globally, there is less than 1 mental health professional for every 10,000 people, countries spend on average only 2 percent of their health budgets on mental health and international development assistance for mental health is estimated to be less than 1 percent of all development assistance for health.

Research conducted by the Michigan State University shows that the impact of the pandemic on students, faculty and staff in institutions of higher learning include anxiety (19 percent), work concerns/stress (16 percent), stress (13 percent), depression and relationship concerns (10 percent), family concerns (9 percent), grief/loss (7 percent), health anxiety, adjustment/ transition (6 percent), and work environment concerns (4 percent). This is evident that more care and support needs to be channeled to universities to raise awareness on mental health and especially in Africa because of existing norms and stigmatization.

Prof. Ruthie Rono, a Professor of Psychology shared her experience in dealing with some of issues that students are currently dealing with during the pandemic. Students mentioned that some of the challenges they were dealing with include academic issues, financial challenges and fear of not being able to sit for exams, anxiety, loneliness, fear of discrimination, frustration with resuming with normal operations taking long, loss and grief through death of parents and family members, conflict with parents, relationship issues and ability to finish their studies on time among others. She highlighted that the Counselling Centre has continued offering counselling services to students, staff and faculty. “Our counselors continue to offer support remotely through video conferencing platforms, WhatsApp and follow up phone calls, which has helped our community cope during these unprecedented times,” she said. She also highlighted that stress levels had significantly increased for faculty and University administrators who have to grapple with increased workload, increased parental care since children are not going to school, training in order to adapt to the online teaching mode among others.

In concluding the discussion, Prof. Rono mentioned that Universities need to conduct research to ascertain the levels of mental health issues among their communities, enhance mental health care, build resilient and successful coping mechanisms, and increase support hotlines.

The final dialogue series will be held on July 8 and will be discussing the impact of COVID-19 in Africa and the opportunities for partnership and engagement.

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