How Kindness Can Improve Mental Health in Academia

March 16, 2022

Roman Sidig (he/him/his) was born and raised in Germany, He is of Afghan descent and is a student of Political Science and Economics. Next to his studies, Roman is deeply passionate about children’s rights as a volunteer for the United Nations Children’s Fund and Major Group for Children and Youth and also serves as elected student representative on campus. He hopes to make the world a kinder, braver place and eliminate stigma surrounding mental health – step-by-step – by helping young people build a better tomorrow.

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Two years ago, on March 16, 2020, the first lockdown in Germany was decided. On March 22, 2020, said lockdown officially entered into force and life has drastically changed in all areas of concern from work to school and much more. When I look back at these past two years now, not just in my position as Student Representative but as a student myself, it is clear to say that students worldwide have been forced to adapt to something not many could quiet comprehend to its full extent then and have since faced severe difficulties in the pursuance of their studies.

Many students have come forward to talk about their problems and were brave enough to share their stories and feelings, explaining that most of the issues are not directly caused by their studies and curricula per se, but nonetheless still have a great impact on them. Even from my own personal perspective, in terms of adapting throughout the seasons, I have been comparatively “better off” again in the context of prospective relaxations in the Summers. With the Delta-variant in 2021 and Omicron as a gamechanger, however, Winters have been tougher and case rates higher than ever before. As such, colleges and universities have been facing closures with faculty and students alike wondering how much longer they have until the next wave of rules they must adapt to.

In my experience, there were times when I recognized that the situation has not necessarily improved in time but instead even worsened. In exchange with my peers in college, I have noticed great deals of confusion, loneliness, aggravation, a huge loss in a sense of belonging, purpose, and fulfilment on a mental level and an increasing inability for me to “just keep on going and look at the bright side”. In an attempt to highlight the situation of many by opening up, being vulnerable and sharing some of my own experiences, I hope to encourage others in academia to take care of themselves.

Generally, the problems experienced by students have been highly diverse, and a great amount will continue to also have an impact on future semesters, not just on the ones that have passed. With the pandemic affecting not just our studies but also livelihoods, jobs, and mental health, many of us have been experiencing financial hardship, inadequate housing situations, and limited social contacts that are making distance learning even more difficult.

The limitations on social contacts, however, have most definitely been the one thing most difficult to adapt or get used to and as such, hit particularly hard. Inarguably, in-person classes on campus are characteristically and exceptionally formative due to the intellectual and private exchange with peers and faculty alike. These exchanges thrive on personal contact with one another, and the pandemic continues to deprive students of the most essential component of their university experience. Some might have moved to different cities to study, enrolled in universities where they do not know anyone, and others might have graduated with dozens or hundreds of black tiles in a Zoom session and thus been robbed of commencing monumental steps in their young lives or even close chapters as they deserved to.

Instead of taking everything as exogenously given, merely looking into hard facts and numbers, kindness must be fostered in form of a collective willingness in trying to understand students and their situations on a deeper level. With in-person classes slowly returning, universities in general and every single faculty and department inside are now faced with the great task of reaching out to their students. Whether this kindness is being fostered or not could have a tremendous impact on the outcomes of students’ lives and the pursuance of their studies – on both sides.

This is more easily said than done of course and this article is a clear call to action and form of encouragement for all involved parties to look out for another and stay in contact. College staff must keep the issue in mind and continue to try to support one another and their students and simply reach out to them more often, even when facing a variety of black tiles in a Zoom session on a tiny screen instead of a variety of faces in a lecture hall which is a situation that is just as depressing to students as it is to them. Together, universities and respective student councils must try to encourage their students and peers to take care of and be kind to themselves and also be aware of their mental health so they can get through this crisis. Only then can we manage to encourage our students to prioritize their mental well-being and address issues in their personal circles and/or with professional help in the best way possible.

As stated in the beginning, in the midst of confusion, loneliness, aggravation, and anger, sadness, a huge loss in sense of belonging, purpose, and fulfilment on a mental level, all that students are looking for in many cases is being seen and listened to and quite frankly, simply being understood.

Key in this for students is to be able to give feedback to showcase how they are feeling in academia. What is the amount of time and work put into their studies, how appropriate and reasonable is it in different courses and how are the courses they are enrolled in also affecting their own mental health? How are the forms of communication between lecturers and students and how are lecturers taking into consideration the individual situation of respective students and their mental health? This also poses the question on how appropriate examination processes and formats are and how prepared students even feel after completing the course. Another factor could also be how connected students feel to one another and whether peer counselling opportunities are given to also talk to one another. As such, kindness is giving each and every single student a platform to speak up and be heard.

One could simply sum up that kindness in academia is faculty members and students coming together. For example, by providing initiatives that help raise awareness on counselling services in various forms. Many students are not aware of the vast variety of services they could technically have access to. It is the kind thing to acknowledge the past and the present to, in the future, help students overcome this pandemic not just with relaxations of regulations on a political level but also with relaxations and rest in their hearts and minds as well as their body and soul.

The power of kindness in academia is one that helps students and faculty members alike to learn from each other and thus foster safe and positive learning environments that enable each and every single student to bring out the best in themselves and grow to their fullest potential. In a way, students are not only those learning from their teachers. There is a trade-off in academia in which teachers put themselves into the position of a student and learn from them as they are, in fact, teachers themselves that can help create and bring upon kind learning environments.

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