Mental Health in a Pandemic: The Case at Tohoku University

By Trishit Banerjee | Translated by Kiyou Kamisawa

With isolation and income reduction, students are very vulnerable. Voice Up Japan surveyed students at Tohoku University to understand how the pandemic has been affecting their mental health.

In April 2020, Tohoku University announced ¥400 million emergency assistance for students affected due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a December 2020 Ashinaga survey of 1,690 university students it supports financially across Japan found that 25% of respondents contemplated quitting university in the pandemic. With isolation growing from more students being confined to their homes in addition to the reduction in their incomes, Voice Up Japan surveyed students at Tohoku University to understand how the pandemic has been affecting them.

At the beginning of April 2020, the university President Hideo Ohno raised the Emergency Action Plan (BCP) to Level 3 in response to rising cases during the first wave of the pandemic in Japan. This meant that all classes were to be held online and all extracurricular activities were prohibited amongst many other restrictions. Research work was limited on the campus and for freshmen students entering in Spring 2020, it meant little to no chance for interacting with new people.

Fig 01 : Disinfection wipes and QR codes outside each classroom
Fig 02 : Social distancing stickers on the way to the restroom

Around 2 weeks after this announcement, the details of the emergency assistance was announced. Wi-Fi Rentals were made available for students and 2,500 students were announced to be employed as ‘Peer Supporters’ to help undergraduate students in their academic and daily life. Further, options for deferment of tuition payment, emergency scholarship, etc. were announced to incentivise students in moving away from being dependent on part-time jobs outside the campus and to also buttress those with reduced income from families.

Even with visible financial and other forms of support from the administration, students had varying opinions about their mental health in the pandemic. Last month, we surveyed 28 students on the campus belonging to 8 different countries (including Japan) randomly. Half of these students reported that their mental health was affected but only 8 students consulted someone regarding it. One Japanese student said, “With more time for myself, I have started to worry more about my future.” Students reported feeling more lazy and melancholic with their increased time at home. For the international students it also meant not being able to return to their countries.

Though half of the total respondents in our survey did say they received support from the university mainly in financial aspect, the responses to what support they expect the university to provide in the coming few months is much more diverse.

With exams shifting online, many of the exam questions have reportedly become more difficult as compared to previous years due to the inability for complete supervision on the virtual platforms. Some students reported that they would like to have easier questions and expressed concern regarding their grades and credits. Several students also highlighted their need for mental support. One respondent from Indonesia said that she would like to have counselling services with no language barriers. She also said that since April she has been visiting a psychologist outside the campus. Another respondent from Malaysia said that she would like to have more options to receive career support in this situation.

In July and August 2020, the university’s Center for Counselling and Disability Services itself conducted a survey with the freshmen year. With 1,381 respondents (56.3% of all the new students), 20% reported feeling anxious and depressed. Students ranked solving of problems in classes and arranging timetables as contributing towards the majority of their anxiety in their academic life. In their daily life, inability to exercise, socialize and perform extracurricular activities have been reported to be the major sources of anxiety. Further, 61% felt that their motivation towards university life had decreased whereas 31% are indifferent to it. 54% of respondents also said that they don’t feel a sense of belonging at Tohoku University and only 21% responded that they do.

Fig 03 : Ranking by students about sources of anxiety in academic life
Fig 04 : Ranking by students about sources of anxiety in daily life

The university survey also asked students about the support they expect from the university and with similar result to ours, academic and extra-curricular activity support were the most requested by 61% and 56.2% respondents respectively. Only 13.8% of the freshmen respondents expected economic support from the university. This might not be surprising given the widening income inequality affecting the enrolment rate of children from such families in a public university. In 2013, a report in The Japan Times regarding a survey conducted in this regard by a research group at University of Tokyo found that only 7.4% of children from low-income households (annual income less than ¥4 million) advanced to a public university as opposed to 20.4% of children from high-income households. This corresponds to higher income stability for these children in a crisis such as the pandemic.

While Tohoku University like many others is finding new ways to cope up in this pandemic, it has to be noted that most universities will not have enough resources to do so. Many students across the country who have demanded a reduction in tuition costs were met with rejections. The stress arising from the payment of rents in cities like Tokyo with consistent job cuts have only made things worse. On the other hand, universities are tasked with the immediate challenge of moving everything online, reducing paper-based administration work and the looming labour crisis involving its faculty and staff members. With the 2020 freshmen students now entering sophomore year and Japan riding on the third wave of the pandemic, it remains to be seen how these challenges will be further addressed.