Mental Health in the Pandemic: A Discussion with Dr. Arvinder
By: Nishka Mishra, UG 22
Illustration: By Sadhvi Dash, UG 22
A WhatsApp notification reminds me that I haven’t been paying attention to the last 17 minutes of class. “I’ll have to check the recording,” I think, adding to my mental list of tasks I am yet to ever exhaust. With a weary vision and an aching head, I gloss over the word document that’s been open since morning. “Was ‘identity’ even the right word to use here?” I ponder after the Moodle bar had turned red with the notification, ‘submitted 46 seconds late’.
“It’s the lack of choice, of control. It could be real, it could be perceived, it’s both,” explains Dr. Arvinder, discussing the transformation in university experiences that the pandemic has created with it. While a lot of us now identify the virtual classroom as a stressful space, it is essential to recognize the context that forced us here. Online learning, prior to these past months, existed as a rich resource that one could tap into, transporting students to areas of interest that weren’t available otherwise. While this remains so, the difficulty presently associated with classes arises with the sudden shift to a system that students were neither well-versed with nor had the time to do so comfortably.
It was in the mid-term break in March that students headed home only to watch the entire Ashokan framework shift online in a week or so. Fast forward a few months and spring semester has passed with first years missing out on-campus happenings. Adding onto that, many from other batches are stuck in an internal conflict—the physical environment they are present in and the constructed haven in Ashoka, where they would like to be in. Amidst the lack of connection, the fear of uncertainty, and feelings of intense inadequacy, Dr Arvinder describes how different groups of students are experiencing the pandemic in varied ways. From some facing connectivity issues and a lack of privacy at home to others having to worry over academic decision-making, the circumstances become worse when students have no access to a thriving culture of interactions, even if it were simply having Maggi together in the pantry at 2 am. On the spectrum of well-being, many with mild anxiety or depression have moved to moderate or severe levels—even worse is the situation of ones who cannot refer to resources.
“A whole lot of problems were coming in and the helpline just helped them vent it.”, she answered when asked about resources available specifically within Ashoka. With the onset of the new semester, the ACWB counsellors-led helpline running throughout the week soon became an in-between space for students to be heard. When the safety of the students and counsellors became paramount, sessions shifted to Google Meet with a larger range of timings for schedules to match from both ends. Despite how daunting it may seem to avail such a resource, these sessions—accessible through the ACWB portal, email or even a session booked by a friend on your behalf—aim to create a space where one can talk, be it about one’s daily stressors or the traumatic experiences the year has given rise to.
In the wake of stress turning into distress, triggers rising, and emotional dysfunction materializing in one’s learning, Dr Arvinder emphasizes on how taking care of one’s well-being is a “daily business”. With everyone constantly striving to be productive in a competitive environment, it becomes easy to compromise on good mental health and deviate from the balance between work and self-care. “It’s as if you’re driving a car at full speed, notice the fuel meter at E, and despite seeing a gas station, you pass right by it because you don’t have the time. You could be the best driver with the best car and the best brakes and you still wouldn’t be able to reach where you want to be,” she explains. While it may seem fitting to operate in crisis mode given the continuous deadlines, it is vital to understand that prioritizing what’s important over what’s urgent is better in the long run.
Although self-care might seem like an additional task to be crossed out of your to-do list, it lies in the smallest and simplest of actions. Sleep, food, and routine, as Dr Arvinder puts it, are the few, but essential actions in your control that give the much-needed energy to carry on. When the brain’s hungry or sleep-deprived and you’re running on irritability, general disinterest, and low concentration, it helps to take a few minutes to kick up the adrenaline and dopamine by busting a few moves to happy tunes in the privacy of your room. It doesn’t have to be the same thing every day, she adds, suggesting that methods as simple as holding a color pencil and engaging in free-hand drawing could help one focus better.
And so, as final’s week approaches, acknowledge when the fuel meter’s running low, call up a friend and talk about that funny Zoom chat comment that made your day, and the moment you wake up tomorrow morning, take just two minutes to stretch out the weekly blues.