Experts from Canada and Australia discuss tangible ways to combat the pandemic’s negative mental health effects on students
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated mental health issues among post-secondary students, forcing universities across the country to find creative ways to support students learning from home.
Anne Duffy, an academic psychiatrist and professor at Queen’s University, identified an increased need for student support as “a phenomenon amplified by the pandemic” during a Feb. 9 Studiosity panel on student well-being. During the panel, experts from Canada and Australia discussed trends in national student well-being, the support systems schools have in place, and what needs to change in order for university support to be fully effective.
“The normal stresses that university students face remain, but the pandemic has added an extra layer of stress to that,” said panellist Kylie Readman, pro-vice-chancellor at Murdoch University in Australia. “Financial stress, the loss of casual jobs, loss of accommodations, access to the internet to study, university fees, they all flow on from there.”
Youth were at risk for poor mental health before the pandemic. During the pandemic, teenagers and young adults aged 15 to 24 reported the greatest declines in mental health, according to Statistics Canada.
With many students at home, the lack of social connection they once had on campus leaves schools with the obligation to step up and try to fill in the gaps, which presents its own struggles as students and staff adapt to new technology.
“We’ve worked hard to make sure opportunities that students would have had on campus to engage with others, still exist on Zoom to try to make sure students still feel connected to the school,” said panellist Deidre Pickerell, the dean of student success at Yorkville University in New Brunswick.
Pickerell recognized that students may not have a safe and private space at home to engage in one-on-one counselling. Offering peer support groups can help students talk about what they’re going through with others who can relate without making it feel like formal counselling.
Using mindfulness might not work for every student, said Duffy, but it is an option for some to try to better their mental health.
“There are well-being resources and coping strategies that we can impart to students that would be helpful,” she said.
Students everywhere are facing the same challenges that many face in Canada, prompting calls for the discussion to widen when it comes to universities offering adequate and accessible mental health services.
“What we need to do is have another look at this and build a series of practical reforms and modernize the whole approach,” said panellist Patrick McGorry, executive director of Orygen and professor of youth mental health at the University of Melbourne. “We need to take a more serious approach to providing (mental health) care.”
Although students may feel isolated and struggle with being away from campus, Pickerell said that a majority of faculty and staff are also dealing with their own mental health struggles. “It is much healthier for students to recognize that their tutors or staff are also struggling,” she said.
“In some cases, our students aren’t operating at their best, but neither are we.”
To properly offer students substantial support systems, Duffy emphasized the importance of including students in the integration of these support systems. Besides working with students to improve services, she emphasized the need “to actually feed back and have meaningful conversations with tangible deliverables at the end.”
McGorry added, “Give students power and involve them at every stage — universities may not be that great at that.”
As universities grapple with how to engage students through online platforms and improve the mental health services they offer, the panellists agreed it is important to have discussions like these that challenge the systems put in place to ensure that all students have access to sufficient support.
At Ryerson, there are services offered for those who are struggling with mental health concerns. To access them, click here.