For university and college students, exercising resilience during the pandemic has been difficult. Online classes, isolation, dwindling job prospects, financial stress and the fear of itself have all weighed heavily on their psyche — and many were already struggling with mental health issues and heightened stress before 2020.
Some students are now gearing up for a return to campus and in-person learning in the week of Sept. 9, for the first time since the pandemic emerged. But how are Ontario universities preparing to meet the physical and mental health needs of students on campus after a year of them being away, especially as worries increase over the Delta variant and mounting pandemic-related stress?
“I have seen a lot of students taking leaves and dropping out because they are unable to cope with the demands of school when their mental health has already been so gravely impacted by the pandemic,” said Michele Foster, a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Toronto Psychology and Wellness Group clinic.
“It’s important for schools and professors to be as flexible as possible,” Foster said, adding resilience isn’t as strong as it used to be for many students.
Several surveys and studies during the pandemic have shown the mental health impacts suffered by university and college-aged students. According to a on Canadians’ mental health, conducted between September and December of 2020, young adults aged 18 to 24 were three times more likely than older adults to report symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the University of Toronto, faculty and students are implementing on campus after a , which homed in on gaps in accessing care, as well as a “culture of academic excellence” that needs to be balanced with student well-being. These efforts follow four deaths by suicide of U of T students since 2018, including the death of a first-year mathematics student in November 2020, a few months into the pandemic.
Elsewhere, universities have increased the number of counsellors and health professionals on campus in time for September. Both the University of Waterloo and McMaster University created an on-call clinician role for responding to urgent mental health calls on campus.
At Queen’s University, new health-care staff will be hired for the fall, including a registered dietitian, an occupational therapist and additional family physicians to support students, and a wellness adviser for racialized students. “Demand for support and service has been rising for several years; across the sector, we have all been doing our best to respond,” said Cynthia Gibney, the executive director of Student Wellness Services at Queen’s.
These additional measures are welcomed by students who lived and studied through the pandemic, but some say the key lies not only in making sure resources are available, but making sure students know about them.
“A lot of my peers were never told of any of these mental health resources or accessibility services,” said Jan Lim, a recent U of T graduate who completed her last year during the pandemic. “Our frosh leaders didn’t share resources with us, our registrars didn’t share them with us, so we were left to our own devices.”
This year, the University of Toronto launched across all three campuses after years of advocacy for implementing such a resource in place, Lim said. She anticipates it will be a big help in at least letting students know where and what type of health care and therapies they can access on campus.
But through a recent research project, in which Lim — a physiology and anthropology student — surveyed peers in December 2020 about their experience trying to access health services on campus before and over the course of the pandemic, other barriers to accessing care became apparent.
“People were reporting that during the pandemic, it was very difficult to access mental health services from the school, and it was very difficult to communicate mental health struggles to teaching assistants or to professors,” Lim said, adding that pre-pandemic problems got worse.
Lim said some students who tried to access intensive psychotherapy or psychiatry services through the university, which were moved online or over the phone due to COVID, were still experiencing “extremely long” wait times, up to four months. “Even this year, they said that the wait to see a specialist is months unless I wanted to pay out of pocket,” a third-year international student in social sciences told Lim.
“During that wait time, there have been no checkups,” Lim added. Others have raised issues about the length of time between sessions. One student at U of T’s Mississauga campus that was interviewed by Lim for her research said “there weren’t enough appointments available, and were at least a month apart.”
In response to these concerns, U of T said students at all three campuses are able to access 24/7 support through the university’s , a phone and chat service that rolled out in early 2020, and that students can reach out to this resource as they wait between appointments.
For international students who couldn’t make it to Canada because of COVID-19, some have reported not being able to access virtual care through U of T despite their status as a student. “I was told that they only offer counselling services for students in Toronto,” a first-year student from New Delhi told Lim.
The university said this barrier for international students outside of Canada exists because of regulatory provincial bodies for psychologists and psychiatrists, which limits the scope of their practice to individual provinces. “This is beyond our control,” a U of T spokesperson said, adding that students outside Canada can still access support through their Student Support Program, which offers help in 146 languages.
Another issue Lim found was the lack of academic accommodation for students experiencing stress from mental or physical health issues, and who wanted assignments or tests deferred. She said she hopes this will be remedied this school year, as pandemic-related stressors are bound to continue.
“Communicating that knowledge (of mental health concerns) to educators at the university who often have a more direct role in the student experience will be really important,” she said. “I truly believe that if professors and teacher assistants have an increased awareness of individual struggles that students go through, they will be more compassionate.”
Lim said she’s proud to have graduated from U of T, but the results of her research and years of student mental health advocacy have left her “consistently disappointed.” She added the problems aren’t unique to the university, but are rather part of a larger, global need to prioritize the mental well-being of students across campuses.
Through her experience working with and treating post-secondary students, clinical psychologist Foster said another helpful way universities can increase access to mental health resources for students is by offering more online group therapy programs focused on developing coping mechanisms and emotional regulation. “Offering something like that doesn’t take a ton of resources,” Foster said. Currently, U of T does offer group therapy for students experiencing anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Lim said U of T has made promising changes regarding mental health resources, but added on-campus health services, both mental and physical, must be as effective and accessible as possible, especially for international students or those whose families aren’t in Toronto. “There are a lot of students who don’t have family doctors in the city, so they’re reliant on the Health and Wellness Centre to refer them to services such as psychology or psychiatry.
If students have to wait a long time for help, she said, “it can be very damaging.”
If you are thinking of suicide or think someone else may be, there is help. Call your or go to the emergency room of your local hospital. through the government of Canada. You can connect to a at 1-833-456-4566 and at 1-800-668-6868.
Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Follow her on Twitter: