Mental health issues are known to be the leading impediments to academic and professional success, and affect critical aspects of the psyche such as motivation, focus and concentration, as well as social interaction. In the 21st century, one of the most vulnerable groups with respect to mental health are students who are constantly under pressure due to the growing demands of a rapidly evolving education system.
In this context, the COVID-19 pandemic has put mental health at the forefront of the discourse around online learning and education. Traditional forms of learning were fundamentally transformed in a small period of time, without giving students the time or resources to adjust to such drastic changes. Consequently, a lot of students were left behind and found it increasingly difficult to engage within this radically transformed environment. Reports have shown just how grim the situation has been for students; particularly for those hailing from marginalised backgrounds.
An Unjust Educational System
However, it is important to note that mental health deterioration is not a consequence of the pandemic alone. It merely acted as a catalyst in exposing the deep fault lines in an already broken and unjust educational system characterised by entrenched social divisions, differential access to resources and the glaring lack of both mental and academic support systems.
As economist Kartik Murlidharan points out, the Indian education system is perhaps best understood as a “filtration” system rather than an “education system” and the constant fear of being “filtered out” is one of the deep-rooted sources of constant anxiety among students, leading to devastating levels of mental health deterioration. For far too long, conversations around mental health have been stigmatised in India. More importantly, not much is known about the long-term mental health effects of pandemic on young adults; generally recognised as an important research gap in social psychology literature.
Motivated by these concerns and a severe lack of discourse and literature on students' mental health in India, we conducted an online survey of 445 economics post-graduate students in several Indian institutions spread across the country to understand how the mental health issues faced by students correlate with their ability to participate in study groups, a hyper-competitive job market, perform academically and learn new skills. We administered the Generalised Anxiety Disorder questionnaire (GAD-7), a clinically approved severity measure for anxiety. Each individual is asked 7 questions with 4 options each and is scored on a scale of 0-21, with cutoff points of 5, 10, and 15 representing mild, moderate and severe levels of anxiety.
The primary findings of our study paint a grim picture of the state of students’ mental health. Our results indicate that women and lower castes, on an average, have higher GAD scores than males and upper castes (UCs), which have important implications for their performance and ability as well as their career prospects.
Gender and Social Groups
The table shows the average GAD scores across gender and social groups for our full sample. UC men have an average GAD score of 8.07, lower than the overall male average of 8.42. Whereas SC men have a 20.4 percent higher GAD score than UC men. The differences only become more striking for women. UC women have significantly better GAD scores than women belonging to lower castes, with differences as high as 44.8 percent between UC women and ST women.
Prevalence of anxiety across social groups further exposes the deep fault lines of a fundamentally divided society. 31 percent of all SC students in the sample reported severe anxiety, which is more than twice of UCs (13 percent) – an alarming disparity. Moderate anxiety is also 16 percent more prevalent among ST students vis-a-vis UC students.
Like social groups, a gender comparison also confirms what social scientists have been speculating. Women have 13.6 percent worse GAD scores than men. The gender disparities are also reflected in intra-caste comparisons with SC and ST women having the worst GAD scores among all. Overall inter-caste comparison shows that SCs and STs (scheduled tribe) have far worse GAD scores in comparison to UCs and OBCs.
Based on clinical cutoff points, we categorise individuals as having minimal anxiety, mild anxiety, moderate anxiety or severe anxiety. Following these cut-off points, we plot the prevalence of the various levels of anxiety based on self-reported family income in Figure 1. 18.4 percent among those whose family members earn upto Rs 25,000 per month report having severe anxiety.
Prevalence of moderate to severe anxiety ranges from 37 percent to 46 percent across all income groups. 17 percent of the students belonging to economically prosperous(>100k) families also face severe anxiety. Material conditions, like financial stability and access to resources, can affect an individual’s mental health outcomes to a degree, however, our results indicate that income alone does not explain the variation in anxiety levels and mental health issues cut across class lines.
Difficulties in Studying
One of the most detrimental effects of anxiety is observed in their ability to form study groups – an important channel of learning and peer engagement for students. 85 percent OBC and ST students found it difficult to form such study groups with the onset of the pandemic, 10 percent higher than UC students. Furthermore, among those who found it difficult to form study groups, 17 percent reported having severe anxiety and 29 percent reported having moderate anxiety.
The consequences of these gaps reflect in the grades they had expected and received in the previous semester, with 57 percent among those who found it difficult to form study groups, reporting lower than expected academic performance compared to the previous semester.
Covid Stress Increases Job Anxiety
More than 7 out of 10 students with severe anxiety also reported facing greater difficulty in finding jobs and internships due to the pandemic in comparison to only 5 out of 10 among those with minimal anxiety. As the mismatch between the number of jobs and number of applicants rises, the level of anxiety makes it drastically more difficult to be functional in a hyper-competitive job market.
These results are a small-subset of aspects we covered in the survey, highlighting the important variations in mental health of economics post-graduate students across gender and caste. Support from teachers – particularly those from marginalised communities – can play a major role in mitigating the extent of such issues.
A joint report released by Rethinking Economics India and Bahujan Economists earlier this year highlighted the abysmally low levels of representation of women and Bahujans in Economics in India. This is where, we believe, initiatives like Bahujan Economists and Women in Econ/Policy play an important role in making academic spaces more inclusive and supportive of the marginalised.
Based on these findings, we conclude that there is an urgent need to address mental health and social justice in Indian educational institutes. We don’t believe that this problem is exclusive to economics postgraduate programs, but rather the spectrum of social sciences as well as other undergraduate and postgraduate programs.
For instance, out of the 8,856 and 784 faculty posts sanctioned in IITs and IIMs respectively, only 9 percent and 6 percent positions are filled by SCs/STs/OBCs against the constitutionally mandated quota of 49.5 percent.
More recently, Vipin Veetil resigned from IIT-Madras alleging incessant caste discrimination at the hands of other faculty members for the two years he was there. Thus, it comes as no surprise when Bahujan students report worse mental health and academic outcomes.
There needs to be a conscious effort in destigmatising conversations around failure as well as seeking professional help. Access to mental health professionals should not only be institutionalised on campuses but also be actively encouraged. Peers and faculty should constantly strive to create channels through which they can reach out to others in a way which is safe and offers a sense of trust. Lastly, if students are facing trouble, small or large, they need to be engaged with patience, support and empathy, which is more often than not, easier said than actually done. As we show, this is all the more important as those facing mental health problems are often those who already face several forms of discrimination within the system. We hope that our findings start a larger discourse and encourage students to seek access to mental health resources, now more than ever.
(The authors, Mohit Verma and Sankalp Sharma, hold a postgraduate degree in Economics from the Madras School of Economics. Verma is currently with Bahujan Economists and working in Research at Good Business Lab and Sharma is currently a Research Associate at Development Data Lab.)