Fighting the echo pandemic

How local and national organizations are working to better support post-secondary students’ mental health during the pandemic

In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous mental health surveys found that post-secondary students were increasingly reporting feelings of depression and anxiety. Since measures to protect public health led to the closures of university campuses across the country, including Kwantlen Polytechnic University, students have had to adapt to a new regimen of online learning.

Mental health professionals at Canadian universities have observed that the trend of declining mental health among students has not only continued, it’s getting worse.

Many believe that the necessity of social distancing has exacerbated feelings of loneliness, isolation, and anxiety in a demographic that was already facing significant challenges to their mental health caused by financial, academic, and professional stress. In addition, a growing number of younger people report feelings of anxiety and depression linked to increased time spent on the internet and social media, worries about the destructive effects of climate change and the deepening impacts of economic and social inequality taking hold around the world.

Source: ACHA-National College Health Assessment – Canadian Reference Group.

The American College Health Association’s 2019 National College Health Assessment for Canadian students reports that 52 per cent of respondents said that, for varying periods of time, they were depressed to the point where it was difficult to function in the previous year, and 69 per cent reported feelings of overwhelming anxiety.

Students reported low mood levels and energy, with 69 per cent having felt very lonely, 76 per cent have felt very sad, and 86 per cent of respondents said that they had felt exhausted even without participating in any physical activity.

Not only does this time in life tend to present younger people with increasingly stressful situations and responsibilities, but even outside the framework and demands of post-secondary education, 75 per cent of mental disorders or issues diagnosed are present in people between the ages of 16 and 24.

Research conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association suggests that more people are experiencing thoughts of suicide as the pandemic rolls on. In June, 2.5 per cent of the people they surveyed said they were experiencing these thoughts. By October, that number had more than doubled, growing to six per cent.

Some expect that this trend will persist even once the pandemic is finally brought under control, causing an “echo pandemic” of negative outcomes related to stress and mental health problems and that in order to face the consistent and widespread issue of the deteriorating mental health of post-secondary students, we need an equally consistent and widespread solution.

Source: ACHA-National College Health Assessment – Canadian Reference Group.

Finding that solution is the reason that the Mental Health Commission of Canada has collaborated with the Canadian Standards Association to combine years of work and create the first country-wide, standardized approach to providing increasingly necessary mental health support for post-secondary students.

In recent years, social awareness and broader acknowledgement of these problems has increased, and in response, funding for Canadian mental health support initiatives has grown quickly. In 2017, the federal government pledged to invest $5 billion dollars towards improving access to mental health services over 10 years. In that same year, the provincial government of B.C. created the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions in order to coordinate and focus government resources to manage the growing problem.

Once the pandemic hit, those resources were directed towards online programs, and the government allocated an additional $5 million in April towards virtual support initiatives like apps that connect students to educational resources and counselling.

Government funding also helps pay for the costs of maintaining university support groups and service programs, research, and hiring and training new mental health professionals like therapists and counsellors.

Online Learning, Mental Health, and KPU Students

At KPU, there are two main support services that focus on students’ mental health: KPU Counselling Services, and the Kwantlen Student Association’s Peer Support Resource Centre.

KPU students can access counselling through the university’s website, and drop-in intake sessions take place from Monday to Friday online and over the phone. Counselling can help students with depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, trauma, grief, and a number of other issues that can affect academic performance and well-being.

Peer Support is an organization that recruits and trains student volunteers to listen and support other students at KPU. Before the pandemic, Peer Support Coordinators Kiran Natt and Kayla MacGillivray worked to manage the service and find student volunteers who could listen to students, offer them the support they needed, and connect them to campus-based and local mental health resources.

“The volunteer’s role is to be that first contact for students,” says Natt, who started working with peer support as a volunteer in 2015, before moving into the role of Coordinator in January 2017.

“There’s a greater chance that when you’re talking to a peer, this person has similar experiences to you. They’re also a student. They’re also going through the student life and student struggle. They can relate to you in a way that maybe your therapist cannot.”

Since KPU campuses closed in the spring, Natt and MacGilivray have been working to find new ways to connect online with the students who are having a hard time and could benefit from Peer Support.

“One thing that we had noticed prior to COVID happening was that there was a lot of loneliness that students were experiencing,” says Natt.

“Anxiety and depression have been something else that we have definitely noticed was a struggle for students. Now that COVID has happened, there’s even more of a disconnect.”

Natt and MacGilivray have been working for months to reach out to KPU students online and provide them with mental health support through group discussions, events, and other accessible resources.

“I think loneliness has only been exacerbated ever since the pandemic began,” says MacGilivray. She also joined the program as a student volunteer before starting her role as Coordinator in August 2019.

“Just being a student — you’re trying to balance work-life as well as dealing with COVID. And a lot of people lost their jobs, so that’s putting stress on students who are trying to pay their way through their schooling and trying to afford to live. They’re dealing with a lot of different stressors right now, and no one was really thinking that this was going to happen, and now suddenly we’re in this position,” she says.

Peer Support has been working to support students through chat sessions on Instagram live, and organizing events like online group discussions, and a recent short film screening and workshop called Movies for Mental Health.

“The feedback that we got from students after that event was really really nice to see. They were saying things like ‘thank you very much for hosting this event, now I have finally reached out for mental health support, I probably wouldn’t have done so without this event,’” says Natt.

Though moving everything online is necessary to maintain connections between people while isolating from the pandemic, MacGilivray says that students have found it challenging at times.

“No one was really prepared for school life to be completely all online. I know that a lot of students were having issues with that kind of switch over and they were expressing that they were actually quite unhappy with how their classes were being run,” she says.

“From what I’ve been hearing, more students have been choosing to skip assignments or presentations, or maybe they won’t attend certain classes because they just don’t have the energy or motivation.”

Source: ACHA-National College Health Assessment – Canadian Reference Group.

Natt says she’s heard the same feedback from students. For some, moving their entire learning experience online has had an unexpected negative impact on their academic performance.

“We’ve had students tell us that they feel like they’re teaching themselves in some of their courses,” Natt says.

“Nobody was prepared for this. And that’s not necessarily the professors’ fault either, because they had to quickly adjust their way of teaching.”

The impacts of social isolation are also being felt by university staff and faculty across the country, and a number of schools are providing support to them as well. Though most post-secondary schools in Canada have prioritized their communities’ well-being and mental health, few of them have collaborated on a large scale to approach the problem in an organized way.

Over the next few years, that may change thanks to the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

The New National Standard

During Mental Health Week in October, the MHCC released The National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students. The standard is a framework which helps post-secondary schools assess their own ways of supporting their students’ mental health, and comparing that to what other institutions are doing and what evidence shows works.

The project started in 2018, and was informed by the findings of a research team from Queen’s University, who looked into the data behind the stress levels of Canadian post-secondary students and the factors that can help students develop resilience. The standard was developed in consultation with thousands of psychologists, counsellors and students.

“We knew that there was already an issue with high levels of stress, and various data indicating struggles for students. Now that we kind of fast-forwarded into the COVD reality, a lot of those stressors and issues became amplified and added to uncertainty for students,” says Sandra Koppert, MHCC Acting Director of Mental Health Advancement.

“Not only was the standard informed from the student perspective, it’s acknowledging the voice of the students and any sort of decisions and work that takes place should include students’ voices and perspectives.”

The standard also connects to strategies and best practices, which have been created over time by administrations at several post-secondary schools, including the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria, and Langara College.

“It really is about encouraging each institution to take stock of what they’re already doing, and sort of map that against the standard and work towards strategies for…strengthening and continuing to support that, and then look to understand where the gaps are,” says Koppert.

“The important thing about the standard is that it’s not prescriptive. It is understanding of the unique realities, challenges and opportunities with each institution.”

The MHCC provides a “starter kit” available online that institutions can use to begin working towards improving their mental health support systems for students using the standard. This can help institutions either learn about, or develop their tools and resources to assess the well being of students, reduce stigma, and increase mental health literacy in the university community as a whole.

“We know it’s not something that happens overnight. We want to acknowledge that we do feel that there is great work happening, there’s also a great need to support and do more,” says Koppert.

“Broadening the conversation to ensure that we are talking about the whole post-secondary community and supporting mental health for everyone, truly is the priority.”