And they’re set to continue in Covid’s junior year

Students finally saw light at the end of the tunnel when they returned to their campuses after 18 months of Covid enforced closure in October 2021.

Sadly, following a brief reprieve from surging cases, Omicron, the most transmissible Covid-19 variant yet, is tearing its way across the nation, which forced the government's hand to stop in-person classes again in late-January

This is the pandemic's "junior year," (third or penultimate year of high-school/university), a term that went viral in twitter among students of the world, as a means to adapt with all the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic through dark humour.

By the looks of things, it feels like 2022 will also be marked by loss of near ones, fear and confusion.

Resounding feeling of failure, is probably something that sums up the emotions of the students in Bangladesh as most of their academic life is stuck in the middle of nowhere during the pandemic.

In a country where suicide is hugely underreported due to social stigma, a recent study by the non-profit Aachol Foundation made an unsettling revelation.

It claimed at least 101 students at tertiary level (above school level, i.e colleges or universities) died by suicide last year, while the number was 79 in 2020.

The highest number of suicides were recorded in Dhaka University, which accounted for nine students while Jagannath University and Shahjalal University of Science and Technology had recorded six suicide cases each, the report added.

Although it is a mounting task to directly link the pandemic with deaths of despair, we can put things into context if we compare the data with the years before.

The study reveals that 11 tertiary-level students died by suicide in 2018, and 19 in 2017 (no reliable figure exists for 2019, Aachol said).

Most affected among them were male students-two out of three victims of suicide were male.

A total of 65 male students committed suicide, accounting for 64.36 per cent of all students. In the case of female students, however, this figure was 36, or 35.64 per cent.

This further proves how patriarchy, and within it more specifically a culture of toxic masculinity, teaches our boys to swallow up their emotions without seeking support, putting them in a vulnerable situation.

Besides, suicide cases among 18-21 years old accounted for 26.73 percent of the total, or 27 cases. Furthermore, the rates for the age groups 28-29 years and over 29 years are 9.90 percent and 3.96 percent, or 10 and 4 suicide cases, respectively.

However, the initial nosedive in mental health was not unexpected, mainly because of the simple scientific fact of chronic stress.

See, most of us were gripped by fear of the unknown when the World Health Organisation first declared a global public health emergency.

The heart beats faster, muscles tense and inflammation increases when the body is suddenly flooded with stress hormones. Both physical and mental health can deteriorate during this time as the immune system weakens and the central nervous system, which remains continually on high alert, wears down.

What we mostly need during these times is a strong social support system or network, the very idea of which lockdowns threatened. The stigma attached to mental health means that parental support over the matter was largely unavailable, which worsened the situation.

To top it all, the digital divide among students countrywide made online education a luxury for many. Academic activities in most of the public universities of the country came to a halt, meaning the students of these institutions were largely behind their private university counterparts.

In a candid discussion with this scribe, Shabnom Momtaz, a student of Dhaka University said,"It feels like I have been in the second year since forever. I was locked within the four walls of my room all alone with my thoughts when the first lockdown came. My personal and academic life was going nowhere which made me depressed and I have attempted suicide several times ever since."

"You know how most of the parents react regarding mental health issues, right? My parents weren't supportive either, which made things worse," Shabnom noted.

When asked by the writer if she tried taking help from teachers of her department, she simply laughed the notion off which proves the gap between students and professors at the campus.

Tamzid Karim, a clinical psychologist, said: "From my experience I can attest that most of the parents simply ignore their children when they seek help regarding mental health issues. There is a need for awareness programmes to help them learn about mental health illnesses and eliminate the stigma surrounding them."

"The number of university students seeking help from me increased quite a bit in the last few years," he added.

"University and college students have many dreams, most of which have been threatened by the pandemic. A feeling of hopelessness is something I observed the most among the young adults during this time," he added.

Apart from depression and anxiety, there were difficulties with basic cognitive function, as people around the world reported a distorted sense of time and memory issues. Cancelled plans, flights, classes, and weddings profoundly altered our sense of time.

The nightmare is likely to continue as our patience with the long, slow march to endemic city has worn catastrophically thin in the last few months.

Even if we assume the best case and believe that the pandemic has reached its endgame with the Omicron variant, the trauma this generation has already endured might have knock-on effects for decades to come. Global researchers expect to see more recurring mental illness and continued substance-use disorders in the days to come.

Just like the parents, policymakers of the country are apparently indifferent to the mental health issue of the younger generation. The government spends 0.44 percent of the national budget on mental health. What is worse is there are only 0.073 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in the country. And even the ones that are there are concentrated in major urban areas.

Although many of them are relatively helpful, the high cost surrounding their appointment means mental health support towards leading better lives is a luxury in Bangladesh. As the government is gearing up the Covid-designated medical facilities to deal with the surging Omicron variant, similar measures should be taken to ensure we do not lose a single soul to depression.

Targeted measures are required to prevent suicide from becoming endemic in a generation, and teachers, parents and the administration all have vital roles to play in this.

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