Wed | Jul 28, 2021

Breaking point - SLB woes, depression, anxiety putting many tertiary students on medication as COVID squeeze tightens

Published:Sunday | January 31, 2021 | 8:57 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer
Senator Peter Bunting, former Manchester Central MP.
Senator Peter Bunting, former Manchester Central MP.
Sujae Boswell, president of the UWI Guild of Students.
Sujae Boswell, president of the UWI Guild of Students.
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Financial and psychological stress resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on hundreds of students in tertiary institutions with an estimated 600 affected students at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, still awaiting the release of funds from the Students’ Loan Bureau (SLB).

And with The UWI forced to shelf $1 billion in scholarships and grants this academic year as a majority of its classes move online with little revenue from accommodations, there is increasing concern as to how the students will ride out the storm.

The UWI, however, is not alone.

Eleven students pursuing tertiary studies across the island told The Sunday Gleaner that they, like many of their peers, were suffering from various levels of depression, with some on prescribed or over-the-counter medication.

All 11 have visited physicians at least once since the academic year and a majority has been classified as ‘anxious’ or ‘depressed’. Seven have been given prescribed medication, while over-the-counter drugs were recommended for others.

Andrew H, 20, appears to be the most severely affected.

“I am fed up. I can’t deal with the lock up, and although I am very good with computers, I don’t want to be talking to a computer to talk to people. I never smoked before and I am now smoking. The lack of contact, the living and not being around people is driving me crazy,” he said last week with frustration heavy in his voice.

He showed how much his hands were shaking, not entirely the result of COVID-19 stress, but the sudden changes in routine and restricted social interactions “significantly contributed to it”, he said, revealing that he was currently taking low-dosed Elavil, prescribed by his doctor to treat mood disorders.

While classes were all virtual last semester for second-year student Abigail Y, who is training to become a teacher, students were required to do face-to-face examinations. She was scared to interact.

“I miss my friends. When you do literature, you get to study poetry from everywhere, and I am reminded of one from Langston Hughes, and the caged bird and why it sings. This is not the life we are supposed to live. We are hot-blooded beings, and I am not doing well,” she admitted.

Abigail has been diagnosed as depressed and added that her condition has left her in a confused state “because I want to be around people, and yet, I am scared to be around them”.

Her doctor has recommended a lot more physical activity and has advised her to take Melatonin, an over-the-counter drug.

“It is making my sleep better, but the turmoil of the health situation with COVID is just making everybody crazy,” Abigail said, adding that she, too, has been prescribed low-dosed Elavil.

DEPENDING ON SLB

Andrew and Abigail are among students facing difficulties financing their education, and for the current year, they must depend solely on the SLB for payments.

The parents and guardians of all 11 students who spoke with The Sunday Gleaner have felt the COVID-19-induced economic pinch, with six losing their jobs, and the other five have one working parent only.

St Catherine resident Diane R benefited from the educational programme funded by her member of parliament’s allocation from the Constituency Development Fund (CDF). The multiple-term representative was one of the People’s National Party casualties in the September general election last year, throwing her financial situation into a tailspin.

“I was on a scholarship programme by the MP for my three-year programme. I am in final year now, and in my first year, I got 50 per cent funding, then 75 in the second year, and if I had an A at the end of second year, I would [have got] 100 per cent. So I got my A, the election come and the MP lose, and now I have to depend on the SLB,” she said early last week.

“Honestly, I don’t know what is going to happen because my institution has not heard a word from the SLB,” she said.

The COVID and financial uncertainties have left her anxious, short-tempered, and “miserable”, and she has been given “sleeping meds”.

The Sunday Gleaner also learnt last week that several students at a Manchester institution are now in a bind as they had been beneficiaries of a programme ran by former Manchester Central MP Peter Bunting with funds from the CDF.

“I had no formal education programme as such outside of the $4 million to $5 million per year that was allocated under the CDF,” Bunting told The Sunday Gleaner.

“However, I also had a number of adopted children who I personally supported with booklists, laptop/tablet computers, healthcare and transportation,” the now senator added, saying that he had also used his monthly salary as MP to support the constituents and constituency activities.

“My office was also, for many years, a homework centre/computer lab, where students and others could have the use of computers to access the Internet, print and conduct research,” Bunting said.

While the engagement has not been discontinued, “it has been substantially reduced”, he said, adding that he was still supporting a few students.

At least one new MP has continued an education programme he inherited for the constituency – Robert Miller, who took over the reins in St Catherine South Eastern from Colin Fagan.

“I actually worked off Fagan’s last allocations, but when I went there, he had budgeted $5 million for education and that was all done. I reallocated $2 million he had for sports to education, so I gave out book vouchers and tuition assistance to tertiary students,” Miller told The Sunday Gleaner.

‘TOO STRESSFUL’

Four of the 11 students who The Sunday Gleaner engaged would normally travel to overseas on an annual summer work programme. Last year, the pandemic blew such plans off course, leaving hundreds of tertiary students with more empty purses for the academic year.

“This is an aberration. I believe the whole school year should be repeated for everybody. It is way too stressful for my young life,” said TaJe F, a Kingston-based tertiary student.

According to the students, the SLB is a “major contributor” to their stress.

“I have been asked four different times for documents,” Andrew H said. “I have dropped of documents myself and they said they can’t find the documents. They tell you to upload certain documents in three formats. I uploaded them in the formats they said, and then they say they are not seeing them. ... Is pure madness going on at SLB,” said the frustrated 20-year-old.

“I have been to the JP about 10 times already,” he said of the need to have documents verified for resubmission..

He said many students have the same complaint.

Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke, who has responsibility for the SLB, has not responded to Sunday Gleaner queries on the issue.

However, UWI Guild President Sujae Boswell said about 20 per cent of UWI’s cohort has been affected by issues with the SLB. In dialogue with the SLB, the institution has raised concerns over the signature on documents as a major hold-up in the process.

“The challenge that most students have complained about is signature.

“Apparently, a lot of cases the signatures are not the same and SLB is asking them to redo the signatures to match them with signatures on identification photos. So yes, the SLB would have contacted persons to say the signatures do not match and so the process has to be redone,” he said Friday. “And what that does is to cause a backlog of paperwork.”

Boswell could not say if the SLB suspected fraud on the part of the students for the insistence on uniformed signatures. Errors of documents, along with the sometimes unmatched signatures further held up the process.

“What they are saying is that as a financial organisation, they have their own regulations that must be observed. And in observing those, I guess problems will always come up, but the Guild has had meetings with SLB to iron out the issues,” Boswell said.

He said that The UWI has been generous to students, allowing them to sit end-of-semester examinations in 2020, but withholding the grades, until fees were paid.

In a note to students, The UWI said it would allow all SLB applicants to get financial clearance to sit their examinations, provided they had paid their miscellaneous fees.

Boswell also said that in having dialogue with other student leaders at other tertiary institutions, it was discovered that the financial and psychological problems were the same.

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com