Unclaimed Students: State of College Mental Health in Pakistan

At 18th birthday, just when the clock hits 12, one magically transforms into an adult role. This sudden change of role and expectation overnight can be extremely overwhelming, be it internal (developmental), external (cultural, societal) as well as both. College enrollment is taken as a meaningful achievement rather than a mere milestone. Although college life offers students the opportunity to gain independence but at the same time it is a stressful phase. Most students know at some level that college life would be different — tougher — than high school, but what exactly does it have in store can only be experienced once you get in. Such as:

Academics: In Pakistan, students start college directly after high school — without an undergraduate degree. There is a sudden transition in academic expectations and responsibilities that no one prepares them for. There is less time spent in class and more coursework outside. Syllabus is given in larger chunks rather than smaller daily assignments which for many becomes scary. Grades, successes, setbacks are now owned by the student. There is no shared responsibility with parents or teachers.

Career choices: These are often the result of obeying the parents’ will and decisions. Parents as sole financers and have major impact on their child’s choice in higher studies and in career.

Agency: They are responsible for making decisions about studying, eating, socializing, finances, health, and managing their time. For those moving into dorms, this is a massive transition.

Peer group: College student enters a new social world. One navigates its path through making new friends, negotiating life with a roommate, deciding the peer group, and once again be a junior as a first-year student. This means to recreate their social world all over again.

Giftedness: These challenges may intensify for students with potential giftedness. Giftedness in simple terms can be referred to extra ordinary smart kids”. It is often assumed that these students have relatively good social and emotional adjustment. Unfortunately, these smart kids possess risk factors that make them uniquely vulnerable.

Finance: In Pakistan education is very expensive due to the shortage of public educational institutes. Most of our students belong to the middle class with limited financial means and resources. In this case many students have to work part-time, commonly as tutors and coaching teachers to sponsor their studies.

Cultural shift: Universities in Pakistan have become increasingly diverse, modern and multicultural resulting from increasingly rural-to-urban migrations (tribes, social classes, religion, and cultural ethnicities). Common cultural shocks include social relationships and differences in perception of rudeness, degree of frankness with opposite gender, reactions to dressing styles, forst exposure to co-education, greetings and salutations, exposure to alcohol and drugs is inevitable, stress associated with separation from family, challenges with using public transport and the use of English language.

With exposure to these potential risk factors, many college students experience difficulty in coping up with these stressors, resulting in either first onset of mental health disorder, a relapse of their symptoms from pre-existed mental health disorder or making them at highly vulnerable.

In 2.5 years of my college psychiatric practice, i dealt with emotional problems in exceptionally gifted young adults. At an early stage of my career, I had an opportunity to develop mental health services for college students. Despite their different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and different personalities, these consultations unfolded many predictable patterns. Nevertheless, Pakistani students have an intense drive to explore and master their career and a strong need to function autonomously. These young people have unique ways of expressing themselves.

The area of college mental health in Pakistan has attained very little attention. Media frequently reports a rise in death of students by suicide. It is safe to say that it’s a time when we have reached “campus mental health crisis.”

Early emphasis on student wellness, critical thinking, and collaborative practice by the educational institutes is likely to positively affect student sense of belonging and psychosocial adjustment. It is important for the stakeholders to shift their focus to understanding the challenges, best practices, and emerging trends of supporting mental health of college students.

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Originally published at http://childpsychling.wordpress.com on February 6, 2020.

Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist; Co-Founder & Director @synapsepk Mental Health Entrepreneur. Recycled Stardust. Evolution. Psychoanalysis. Grit 🇵🇰