Tales of LSS: Locally Stranded Students in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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“Land, domestic air, and domestic sea travel to and from Metro Manila, shall be suspended beginning March 16, 2020… ”  – Rodrigo Duterte, March 12, 2020

As an immediate response to prevent the spread of the virus in the country, the government implemented an Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) which was declared by President Duterte on March 12, 2020. ECQ is a stringent quarantine measure in which transportation and businesses are suspended, only allowing necessary establishments to operate. 

ECQ affected the majority of services and business operations all over the country. One of which is the Education sector. Due to ECQ, classes were ordered to be cancelled from primary to tertiary education all over the country. 

This brought a huge impact to academe, instructors, parents, and students, particularly college students who are residing within the vicinity of their respective colleges or universities. They are called LSS or Locally Stranded Students. .

Daniel, a BS Chemical Engineering student in the University of the Philippines Los Baños, is one of the 9, 367 students that CHED reported to have been stuck and left stranded in college dormitories or rental establishments. 

Being away from his family, Daniel perceived his experiences as stressful during the first days of pandemic.

“As a person na ‘di laging lumalabas, I’m not really super forced to stay at home lang pero I still find it stressful kasi it feels like I can’t do anything sa place where I’m staying and to help improve the situation outside.” Daniel mentioned.

This struggle has also seeped into Daniel’s academic life. The cancellation of classes affected his thesis work and other laboratory experiments. However, since the university is also coping with the changes, deadlines were extended and professors have altered their grading rubrics to be considerate to the current state of the country and the students. These are just some examples of resolutions made  by university officials.

The same story happened to another student from Polytechnic University of the Philippines. Neil, an incoming third year BA Communication Research student, experienced feelings of anxiety. He was worried about his academic status, family, and his future. 

Despite having an option to return to his hometown in Bicol, he still chose to stay in his rental establishment because he was worried that he could infect or spread the virus to his family members. But what does staying mean for his physical and mental well-being?

 

Mental health of young people during the pandemic

Young people are at a stage in which they encounter many changes in the physical, social, emotional, and mental aspects of their lives. This transition from childhood to adulthood is the time where they establish their independence, which can also lead to many firsts and new experiences. All of these make young people vulnerable to mental health issues, and entering college or university may further complicate the mental health of these individuals. 

”There are two things going on there: you’re at risk by virtue of your age and your life experience that you’re going through by going to college or university,” said Dr. Ronald Del Castillo, an Associate Professor of Psychology, and Public Health and Social Policy in the College of Public Health in the University of the Philippines Manila.

In his research on the prevalence of mental health problems among Filipino university students, it revealed that a significant number of young people who answered the survey reported feelings of low mood, worry and anxiety, or feeling afraid. Some also reported bodily complaints including shortness of breath, headaches, among others. Dr. Ronald’s study provides us a glimpse on university students’ mental health, pre- COVID-19; but when asked about their mental well-being during the pandemic, he said that he would not be surprised if there would be a significant spike in students’ mental health issues had the study been conducted during the lockdown.

Dr. Ronald had mentioned that it is perfectly normal to experience distress with what is happening in the past months, but the pandemic reveals crucial factors that complicate mental health of students currently stranded in their dormitories or apartments. One of these factors is isolation. 

“I think ever since the beginning of the pandemic, the lock down, I think a clear message has been that social distancing DOES NOT mean emotional distancing. I think that’s been clear since the very beginning. And so if you live by yourself, that complicates matters. Research consistently shows, a research in the Lancet Psychiatry just came out, that the groups at highest risk for mental health, for mental distress, related to COVID, are young people between the ages of 18 & 34, those are college students, and people who live by themselves and live without a partner. That’s a lot of students. So I think the isolation is definitely an issue,” said Dr. Ronald.

A sense of loneliness and abandonment might arise from isolation especially if there is limited to no means of contact with one’s peers and family, as also mentioned by the professor. This is evident in Neil’s experience as he uses technology to connect with his friends and family in this difficult time.


“Buti na lang may technology. So I get to speak with my friends; I get to talk with my family, may GC [group chat] kami. Kahit papaano, nababawasan ‘yung homesick na nararamdaman mo sa mga panahon na iyon. Pero may mga times talaga na you’re not sure. You cannot pinpoint what exactly is making you feel this way, na bakit ka parang nalulungkot, parang ganun. And I’m thinking na, siguro kasabay na po ‘yan ng hindi talaga real na tao ‘yung nakaka- interact mo. There’s a different feeling kapag personal mo na nakakausap ‘yung mga tao,” Neil said.

To Neil, it seemed that “social distancing” lived up to its name. Even with the constant communication with his loved ones through messaging, phone calls, or video calls, the loss of physical interaction with their family and friends still has a strange emotional impact.

How locally stranded students cope with lockdown

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With prolonged lockdown periods, the locally stranded students came up with coping mechanisms on their own. According to them, it helped ease the difficulties they were currently facing.

In Neil’s case, he coped with his situation by watching series online, listening to music, and learning to cook using Youtube tutorials.

Aside from keeping themselves busy with different indoor activities, they also sought support from other people during the Enhanced Community Quarantine. They kept in contact with their families, professors, and university staff and officials, who helped in their food and financial needs. 

 For some stranded students, they sought relief from their stranded dorm mates by keeping lines of communication open with one another. According to Daniel, it helped ease the feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Good thing I got a roommate na ‘di umuwi and with some other friends na rin… I’m not alone,” Daniel said. 

These stranded students shared that there is still an odd feeling lurking within them despite efforts to cope and be productive. While being stuck in his small rented room, Neil admitted that the whole experience is unusual, making it too hard to handle. 

Coping strategies and habit-building as suggested by experts

The World Health Organization (WHO) advised people in isolation on how to cope with their situation. First is to keep their social connections by using instant messaging, phone calls, or video conferencing. They are also encouraged to maintain healthy habits such as having an adequate and regular sleep, doing daily exercise and keeping a healthy diet. One last advice is to control their news and information consumption about the pandemic since “near-constant stream” of media can cause further distress. Setting a certain amount of time to check the news from reliable sources can be helpful. 

In addition, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee for COVID-19 emphasized the need to “maintain contact with children at risk and their families by remote means.” PUP Sta. Mesa followed this advice by encouraging administrators and professors to use online means to track stranded students and gather information about them. The UP system is also raising funds to provide equipment for students who cannot afford distance learning.  

Similar to the advice from WHO, Dr. Ronald mentioned that to be able to cope with the current situation, stranded students can engage in healthy habits. He also added deep breathing exercises and managing social media use as means to cope during the pandemic. But a deeper question for him was why people find it difficult to sustain doing these coping strategies despite many accessible information about them. And the answer lies in psychological and behavioral science. 

“Behavior is very hard to change,” he mentioned. 

There are struggles on how to start doing these strategies and keeping them as habits. The stranded students may already know what to do, but the difficulty may lie in making a habit of doing such coping strategies. Research suggests that it may take at least 18 days, up to 254 days, for a behavior to be automatic or second-nature. But days are not the only factor in habit-forming. 

Dr. Del Castillo also explained that the key to constantly performing these coping strategies is through breaking any behavior into pieces and mastering each step before proceeding to the next one. By building up to the behavior, there’s a higher chance that a person will achieve her desired coping strategy and form a long-term habit out of it. 

Policy as a key factor in promoting mental health

Aside from individual coping efforts, there is also a need to emphasize mental health in the Philippines’ COVID-19 pandemic response to ensure that stranded students, including other vulnerable sectors, will receive psychosocial support. 

WHO stated in their interim guidance on Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak that disrupted education and social isolation are few of the reasons for the emotional difficulties of adolescents, which in the long run could adversely affect their emotional development. Given such risk to the younger people, it is important that the pandemic measures being laid down are considerate of its implications to mental health. 

More importantly, mental health must be part of the Philippines’ pandemic recovery plan, which can reflect through community-based psychosocial services and health care benefit packages for the general population, especially for the stranded students and other vulnerable groups.

On a positive note, there are laws and policies in the Philippines created to promote Filipinos’ well-being and to ensure that mental health services are available to the public. 

The current pandemic’s lead decision-making body, the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Disease (IATF-EID) has the role to “promote positive health behaviors” and “address public fear and anxiety through the conduct of a nationwide EID awareness campaign.” Such function of the IATF-EID emphasizes that in the event that a pandemic emerges, the people’s mental health must not be set aside.

Another law that promotes the provision of mental health care across different sectors is the Republic Act No. 11036 or the “Mental Health Act”. There is a provision on mental health services in the barangays, educational institutions, and workplaces. It also emphasizes the youth’s mental health concerns and how it will be addressed. 

“This law is a long time coming… They say that this discussion dates back 20 years ago. The fact that it was signed in June 2018, was quite a remarkable feat… It’s more of a guideline, it’s a framework; it’s focused on human rights, which is a good thing,” said Dr. Ronald. 

He also added that the law hits on many sectors and institutions such as mental health in the workplace and schools. The psychological well-being of the marginalized and disadvantaged are also prioritized in the same legislation. However, to Dr. Ronald, RA 11036 still has limitations, but it was a good start and he is glad that the law now exists. 

The road ahead for mental health in the Philippines

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Even with the Philippines’ notable progress in the development of laws and policies pushing for affordable and accessible mental health services, there is still a lot of work to be done. This is true especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery.

According to a report by The Manila Bulletin, several student and youth groups called for stronger collaboration between the Department of Health (DOH) and civil society organizations for a comprehensive health response amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In this report featuring Dr. RJ Naguit, National Chairperson of the Youth for Mental Health Coalition, he highlighted that “the COVID-19 crisis make promoting the mental health complex due to the different socioeconomic factors that threaten the mental health of Filipinos.”

Relating these socioeconomic factors to the LSS’ experiences, they expressed worries on how they will budget money for basic necessities, given that their parents’ incomes have been affected by layoffs and businesses closing, which adds weight to them thinking about their disrupted education.

With all these problems the LSS are facing, together with the multitude of issues with which other Filipinos are struggling, it highlights why mental health must not be overlooked even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The LSS experiences emphasize that mental health is not only focused in addressing mental health disorders, that it cannot be boxed in the idea of being a mere disease or illness. 

Mental health is more than how some in our society view it because, as described by Dr. Del Castillo, it is “the science of how does one become feel well and content” which transcends all sectors in the country — from the largest institutions down to the grassroots of our society.

In our country’s current situation where social connections are in disarray, and people are “socially-distant” from each other, it is high time for us to check on ourselves and each others’ health and well-being. We are free to ask ourselves:

Am I okay?

Do my family, friends and colleagues feel well? 

And if our response is no, it is perfectly fine; it is okay not to be okay as long as we recognize these feelings, cope with it, and seek support from our peers, our family and loved ones, or professionals. As we keep moving forward towards an uncertain future, we can take note of the simple reminder from Neil, one of the LSS, for everyone during this pandemic:

“Look for things na nag-spark ng joy sa inyo. And also, do not invalidate your feelings, na kapag halimbawa you are feeling sad, you’ll have to recognize that, na hindi siya pwedeng ma-conceal.”

 

 

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For free mental health support, you may contact:

National Centre for Mental Health Crisis Hotline – 0917-899-USAP(8727) or 7-7-989-USAP (827).

Philippine Mental Health Association online counseling – through Facebook Messenger, e-mail ([email protected]), or phone (0917-565-2036)

Or you may visit silakbo.ph/help/ for other mental health services available in your area.

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