'Feel Helpless': Indian Students in US Face COVID Stress, Anxiety

A survey by ICEF monitor suggests 56% of Indian students are suffering from mental health issues related to COVID.

South Asians
5 min read
Hindi Female

“It is a very helpless and scary situation to be in a totally different part of the world when there is so much going on in India,” said 22-year-old Norma Lobo, who never thought the second wave of COVID-19 would ravage India the way it did.

Miles away in Massachusetts, the news of India's COVID-19 crisis came as a rude shock to Lobo, a student at Bentley University, Massachusetts.

Another student, Aditi Deshpande, 22, said, "The numbers (of cases) are rising (in India). The Indian students are most affected here, India being our home, we are concerned about the situation there and for our parents."

Millennials and Gen Z are at the epicentre of a mental health crisis triggered by COVID-19. Anxiety over COVID has had a debilitating impact on the youth already fretting over their future and employment security. Add to it, the inability to fly back home as news of deaths pour in.

“The current situation is affecting the mental well-being on account of the uncertainty of the present and the future, the impact on the physical health of the self and loved ones, impact on work and productivity, and as a result, an effect on the relations that surround them,” said Dr Samir Parikh, Director, Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, to IANS.

In a global survey conducted by the ICEF monitor, 56% of Indian students said they were having mental health issues related to COVID. The survey also suggested students living abroad are less likely to ask for help when suffering from mental health crisis, as they face unique challenges due to the pandemic.

Fear, Helplessness and Guilt

The number of Indian students in the US has doubled over the last 10 years. As per the US Embassy, India is the second leading place of origin for students coming to the US, comprising 17.3% of all international students. In 2018-19 alone, nearly 11 lakh Indian students moved to the US in pursuit of higher education. But for these students, living in the US has never been as difficult as it has been over the past year and a half.

“Many experience guilt around not being able to adequately support those around them. These experiences can impact people’s sense of self, their confidence and belief in the worldviews they hold as well as their positivity, optimism and resilience to cope with situations,” said Dr Parikh.

While some are glad their parents got vaccinated, others are calling home to check on them, and initiating fundraisers for India. Students we spoke to said the inability to fly back home to be there for their families is weighing them down.

"To describe it in one word, it is scary. Being so far away, with these restrictions, if anything happens to anyone one in my family, I cannot go back to the country. It is scary because my parents... my dad is above sixty. I am not there to take care of them, I feel terrible about that. In most situations, apart from sending funds I can do nothing as compared to when I was in India."
Norma Lobo, 22, Student at Bentley University, Massachusetts

“The anxiety is real especially for someone who is a single child or has siblings who stay away from home,” Professor Linda Dhakul of the Department of Psychology, St Xavier’s College, Mumbai told The Quint.

“What I tell my students/patients is that even if you were here you wouldn’t have been able to go to the hospital or do much and they should rationally think of who the next person is that can help, and what are the resources available at this point,” she added.

Social Media A Trigger

Students say social media is both a boon and a bane amid the pandemic. On one hand it is being used to reach out to people, help find oxygen and beds during emergency, on the other hand it is forcing on them an overdose of information.

"It is overwhelming. Whenever we open social media, or a news website, the only thing we see is COVID-related news. We also see influencers, YouTubers and general people reaching out and seeking donations to help someone in need. With all the overdose of information it becomes difficult to stay positive," said Deshpande, a student at the University of Texas.

A 2020 study on social media use during the COVID-19 pandemic by the International Association of Applied Psychology suggests social media use positively correlates to negative effect, depression and anxiety. More exposure to disaster news via social media was associated with high levels of stress.

This is why filtering information is crucial when using social media, said Prof Dhakul. “When you go to a buffet, even if you have paid for it, you wouldn’t eat everything, you pick and choose. You need to do the same with the things you consume through social media.”

A Sense of Community

Some of the students we spoke to reiterated the importance of being closely connected to fellow Indians in their college, workspaces and neighbourhood.

"I live in a building where most residents are Indians. I meet my friends every day and they form a support system for me. if something happens to someone in their family, I will be there for them, pray with her and they will do the same for me. I think of it as a positive thing to live around people I know," said Munisha Parikh, 25, a student at Portland State University, Oregon.

Prof Dhakul believes having peers from the same background fosters a sense of community and creates room for empathy.

The best person to help a drug addict is not a psychologist, it is an ex-addict. It should come from a place that I can identify and resonate with. In times of trouble, we choose people that we resonate with, someone who understands us. Empathy comes from the same physical space as you.
Professor Linda Dhakul, Department of Psychology, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai

Lobo, who lives with her sister, said it's the best decision to have stuck around with her, forming a huge support system for each other in stressful times.

"One reason why my parents are not worried about me being so far away is because I have my sister here. She had everything sorted out for me when I came here in 2020. If I wasn’t living with her, it would have been very difficult and I would have definitely been more anxious. There are times when it is scary to see her break down but I am there for her when that happens and she is there for me when such a thing happens with me," she said.

“I had deferred my admission to the January session because I did not want to leave my parents here alone however the course was going to get discontinued and so I had to move in September 2020. Because my sister lives here, she had everything sorted out for me. However, now the situation is scary and helpless. I can’t help much from here nor can I go back home if something happens,” she added.

But not all have given up hope yet.

“Going back to India is something which all students studying abroad long for. But now as the COVID situation in India is not good, it doesn’t seem like a viable option. I am hoping that most people get vaccinated, so that I can visit my family this December when I have my holidays,” said Deshpande.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)


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