WHAT would you do if you received an email from a student with an attachment from a Clinical Psychologist citing Major Depressive Disorder with Anxious Distress?

We’re not counselors nor psychologist, and we don’t pretend to be one. We can only empathize. It was two weeks to the end of the semester and the student was doing well thus far. It would be a pity if the final assignment did not come in.

I could only give words of encouragement for the student to finish strong. Being on prescribed medication did not stop the relapse in the student’s condition. I was at a lost as it was the lockdown and there was not much I could do but alert the school’s authorities while I kept in contact with the student at the rehabilitation center.

Like many other students, the current situation of online learning or open and distant learning (ODL) which is more popular in the public universities, is very stressful for both students and lecturers. We’ve been at it for more than one and half years but it’s not getting any easier.

Students’ normal complaint is that they experience a significant depressive state where their mood, concentration, energy level and sleep are affected. They are likely to have more difficulty in academic learning and performance, as compared to other students who can cope better.

Students with a prior history of depression would experience a relapse of depressive episodes which causes some major impairment in their daily functions. Thus, facing more difficulty to cope with the demands of studies.

What can we do to help them? As a school, we have already reduced the number of assessments for the students. Although this is easier said than done. As lecturers, we also need to look at the syllabus and re-calibrate the assignments to make sure the learning outcomes are achieved for the modules that we teach. Don’t even get me started on the paperwork!

Last semester I was training students to write features. I had a big class of 85 students. I wanted to know what their thoughts were on the current situation, so I let them choose any topic that they wanted to write about. I knew I would suffer when it came to the marking of the individual assignments, but I persevered.

My hunch was right, most of them wrote from the heart and talked about the present conditions they were in whether home in Malaysia, overseas or staying here with friends while the semester commenced. Depression was one word that came up often in the writings. The other keywords were stress, suicide, death and learning to let go.

Not all of them were of this nature, some. Others wrote on things on the lighter side which was a relief for me. I took on the information and tried to encourage where I could, cajoled when the assignments were absent and forced the stragglers to send in the work when my own deadlines were up. I did my best, so did my colleagues but at the end of the semester, I was burnt out.

Students are often advised at beginning of the semester to enroll for subjects that they can manage. They could always drop the subjects if they couldn’t cope anytime during the semester. In the past the students used to be thrilled with non-exam subjects but today, no exams but with an additional assignment does not prove to be the best formula.

Last month, we were saddened by the demise of two students from a public university. Harian Metro reported that Nurul Natasya Ezreen Azemi, a third semester student pursuing her Diploma in Office Management and Technology in Kedah, died after she was found unconscious at her rented house.

The 22-year-old student was reported to have lost consciousness at about 4am. She was rushed to the Sultan Abdul Halim Hospital in Sungai Petani for treatment, but died at 2.50pm, Friday (July 9), 11 hours after being admitted. It was reported that the student woke up at about 3am and managed to wake her housemates, complaining of a headache.

The other student was Muhammad Adham Hazim Mohd Rizaini, 21, who died Saturday (July 10) night, was said to have crawled to his parents’ bedroom asking for help before he was rushed to hospital but died the next day. His father, Mohd Rizaini said he did not suffer from any illness.

Muhammad Adham who was pursuing a Diploma in Civil Engineering in Pahang, was confirmed dead at 10.52pm Saturday night while receiving treatment at the Sultanah Nur Zahirah Hospital.

Mohd Rizaini said the doctor informed him that the computed tomography scan (CT scan) showed two ruptured blood vessels in the back and top of Muhammad Adham Hazim’s head, causing bleeding. He said that his son often slept late to complete assignments and prepare for the final exam in two weeks’ time (The Star).

On July 10, the social media was abuzz with allegations that the students had died due to stress following the need to undergo online learning, workload to complete assignments and prepping for final examinations.

The Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) is concerned with the difficulties faced by students due to online learning and teaching. The MOHE is collaborating with the Counseling Council and Careers of Public Universities of Malaysia (Makuma), to develop a Mental Health module for university students to deal with stress, depression, and anxiety (Borneo Post). An added module? How will this help?

Universities are to follow the advisory note issued by the Malaysian Qualification Agency (MQA) to ensure that students mental well-being are taken care of.  This includes conducting teaching and learning by considering the current situation, introducing various online learning methods according to the suitability of courses offered, and extending assessments and evaluations if required.

With the numbers of COVID-19 not receding, it looks like another online semester looming around the corner. I’m not sure how much changes can be done and how fast it can take place… we can only try to manage what is humanly possible, including our own mental health.

But tell the students how good they are, if indeed they have done well given the circumstances. I saw a batch of broadcasters when they started with me during Lockdown 1.0 in March 2020. This semester (March 2021) was their last and were still in Lockdown 4.0. I got to see their final projects and they were fantastic.

I told them how proud I was of them, the work produced, and the knowledge accumulated under the different stages of lockdown in the country. If there was an award for adaptability, they would win! This was not my class, so I could be either full of praise or brutal with my comments for their projects, and they took it in stride. 

We’re all in this together, hopefully not for very long once we achieve herd immunity. We really need to get off this roller coaster of online insanity fast!

Associate Professor Roslina Binti Abdul Latif is the Co-Editor SEARCH Journal of Media and Communications, School of Media and Communications at Taylor’s University, Lakeside Campus.

** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.