Collegiality, communication key to easing pandemic psych problems

Amid the psychosocial fallout of COVID-19 on campuses, where fear and anxiety levels run high, some actions have proved helpful to students and staff including collegiality, regular debriefings and intensive, clear communication. There has been demand for resilience and life skills training.

So agreed presenters at a webinar hosted by the Alliance for African Partnership or AAP, a consortium of 11 universities in Africa and Michigan State University. “Coping with Mental Health Impacts of COVID-19 in Higher Education: Responses and lessons learned” was the fifth in a series of six AAP public dialogues. University World News is the media partner.

Dr Lucky Odirile, director or the Career and Counselling Centre at the University of Botswana, stressed the importance of debriefing sessions. “Debriefing offers a platform where everybody can…relax and share what COVID-19 has meant to them, and talk about the whole mess and the frustration and the marathon of doing things right.”

“It really helps a lot. Those who have gone through debriefing have come back to say ‘that was all that I needed to move on’.” It had also been helpful for students and staff to know that there is a counselling centre that offers one-to-one counselling, she said. The university has 32 mental health professionals.

Good information, good communication

Webinar moderator Professor Paul Zeleza, vice-chancellor of United States International University-Africa (USIU-Africa) in Kenya, asked how psychologists and counsellors could help to manage fears such as exposure to infection, stigmatisation and death.

“For us it has been important first and foremost to share factual information about the pandemic, how it spreads, how it starts and so on,” said Professor of Psychology Ruthie Rono, deputy vice-chancellor for academic and student affairs at USIU-Africa.

Second, a lot of self-monitoring information is sent out to students and staff, for instance on how to deal with stress and anxiety. The university also provides numbers, email addresses and contact people for students and staff to reach out to for assistance if they have emotional difficulties or COVID-19 type symptoms.

Counsellors contact all people who show symptoms of COVID-19 and offer one-to-one counselling. The university runs group sessions that are informative in nature and allow students particularly to ask questions and to clarify information that may not be accurate. People who show severe signs of distress are referred for counselling.

Dealing with resistance

Young people – and some older people – are frequently resistant to demands such as to wear masks or observe social distancing, saying that they do not believe the need. How can universities approach that problem?

There is a challenge, psychologically speaking, when people fail in understanding – for instance, the various reasons for wearing a mask – said Jonathon Novello, a counsellor and clinical lead at the Employee Assistance Program at Michigan State University. Which is why lots of accurate information is critical.

Also: “What we know about the developing young brain is that students often feel invincible and they often don’t experience the anxieties that we do as adults because their brain literally isn’t in a place where they can take that information in yet,” Novello argued.

“One of the things we can do is anticipate that there is going to be some resistance and then set up things to discourage that.” For instance, when students return to campus, wearing a mask in class can be tied to their grade. Or the university can ensure that campus facilities, such as restaurants and libraries, enforce anti-infection rules.

Building resilience for now and the future

Since nobody knows when the coronavirus crisis will be over, or whether new waves of disease will emerge, universities should pay attention to encouraging resiliency among students and staff, the presenters agreed

Botswana’s Dr Lucky Odirile said it was important to have policies that address crisis preparedness at all levels. As students come to campus, from the very beginning there should be opportunities to explore issues such as: ‘Who am I?’, ‘What am I?’, ‘Where am I going?’ and in case of disasters, ‘How do I survive?'

Novello said it was important to ensure that all students and staff have access to counselling. “Do what you can with public service campaigns and also campaign to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health treatment. This is really important.”

“The other thing is creating opportunities for learning about resiliency.” There are lots of models that speak to resiliency, such as acceptance commitment theory and cognitive behavioural treatment. Students should be given opportunities for resilience training. When staff return to campus post-lockdown, universities might also consider mandatory resilience training for them in large classes.

Professor Ruthie Rono agreed with drawing on the various methodologies that exist on building resiliency. Strengthening the life skills of students through training was also critical. “They need to know how to deal with themselves, first of all, and how to find their way.”

Finally, when universities are unable to address the psychological or health needs of students and staff, they must be able to direct people towards external services that can help.

At the University of Botswana, students and staff have now returned to campus. The university held orientation activities, said Odirile.

“We made it very clear to students that as much as they are worried and as much as they have challenges of uncertainties for the future, the university is doing its best to make sure that all graduating students are going to graduate. And anyone who needs help to cope with the anxiety they are feeling, we are there 24 hours a day to make sure we can assist them.

“It is important that we continuously reassure students that as much as they are worried about their future, staff and the university are doing the best they can to make sure all is well with them. It is important that they seek help. There is no way students can be helped unless they raise their hand and say ‘here I am, I am sinking and I need help’.”


Administrators face sometimes unbearable levels of stress, Zeleza said. How have they been able to cope during the crisis? Administrators overlook the whole university, and most problems make their way to an administrator’s desk. It is stressful work.

At USIU-Africa there is strong collegiality, with great companionship and cooperation between colleagues, said Ruthie Rono. “We have peer rapport, we support each other, we work as a team. That really helped us to navigate the COVID-19 impact. No one administrator is left on their own. We share, we consult each other.”

“As a parting shot, I would say that the most important thing is collegiality, teamwork and really getting to talk to each other.”

Novello agreed. Having the support of colleagues is key because administrators often face criticism “and there is a lot of pressure about making the right decision. But at a moment like this nobody knows what the right decision is. That lends itself to difficulty making decisions and pressure that is often really heavy. Often administrators get ignored and we forget about them, but they need support too”.

Panellist Lamine Ndiaye, professor of anthropology at Universite Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal, spoke about the importance of basing solutions on local realities. “Each and every social environment and each and every country, based on cultural realities, is faced with challenges arising with the pandemic that we have had problems tackling,” he said.

“There are economic impacts but also socio-cultural impacts and psychological impacts. The best way to understand this pandemic, this condition, and to deal with its challenges is to connect it to the cultural realities of each country.”