University students, schools grapple with mental health impacts of isolation

For Kelsey Arsenault, the hardest part about having her university classes moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been losing her program’s social element.

The second-year master’s student at Wilfred Laurier University moved to Waterloo, Ont., from Newfoundland to study music therapy and found herself abruptly cut off from her social network when restrictions set in this spring.

The 25-year-old is now settling into a new semester of remote learning, bracing herself for the isolation that can come with it.

“My lifeline was really my class and getting to meet these people and interact a couple of times a week, so having all of that in my computer in my small apartment is a big adjustment,” said Arsenault, who’s taken to exploring nature in and around Waterloo as a form of relief.

Post-secondary students at Canadian universities are largely studying in isolation this fall as COVID-19 restrictions stay in place for the new semester.

Students are dialling in from new homes in their university towns or from cities far from campus at a time in their lives when experts say the mental health impacts of social isolation are particularly acute.

“Social isolation or social distancing, that is tremendously challenging for people in this age range,” said Nancy Heath, a McGill university professor of educational and counselling psychology.

Heath explained that young people in university are in a developmental stage of their lives when they feel a strong drive to connect with others.

That makes coping with public health restrictions on gatherings tougher for the demographic than for others, she said.

That was reflected in the results of a study, co-authored by Heath, that was published in Canadian Psychology last month. It surveyed 800 University of Toronto students about their mental health in May 2019 and again in May 2020 after COVID-19 set in.

Participants who had no history of mental health concerns reported greater psychological distress during the pandemic than their peers who had pre-existing conditions. Isolation was a driving factor behind increased depressive symptoms, stress and anxiety, Heath said.

“They were right in the midst of this developmental stage: connecting with others, meeting potential partners,” Heath said. “It was shut down and that was tremendously impactful.”

Participants who had reported mental health conditions the year before found their circumstances largely stayed the same, or improved in some cases.

It was easier for this group to cope because they were familiar with the feelings of isolation their peers were going through for the first time, Heath said.

As students grapple with isolation and other upheaval in their lives during the pandemic, universities have made efforts to advertise remote counselling options through social media channels, email and other means.

Walter Mittelstaedt, director of campus wellness at the University of Waterloo, said remote counselling options are running more smoothly this semester, after the immediate rush to fill the gap when pandemic restrictions were imposed in the spring.

Counselling sessions have moved from phone to video, and the department has taken a “broad approach” to promote services to students unaware of their options.

“We’ve been in situations where we’re meeting with a group of students … and (they) were surprised that services continued,” Mittelstaedt said. “We got kind of clued in a few times that we really do have to be very active in our communication.”

In addition to mental health supports available online, like counselling and peer-to-peer meetings, Heath said universities should seriously look at offering virtual, safe forums that imitate organic social interactions, like “recreating your campus pub online.”

Zoom activities or games that engage people who don’t know each other would help fill a gap in students’ social needs, she said, especially for those who don’t have pre-existing social groups.

“The students who are not connected because they relocated from somewhere, or they changed programs or something, those students are getting lost,” Heath said. “These young people need that opportunity and we need to give it to them in a safe way.”

For Arsenault, a WhatsApp group and weekly video calls with her cohort outside of classes have offered much-needed peer support.

Gina Hrachy, a fourth-year fine arts student at Memorial University, said it’s been difficult to re-create the tight social network she and her peers relied on at the school’s Corner Brook, N.L., campus.

Hrachy’s theatre program has moved online and the transition has been exhausting, she said.

On top of uncertainty about how to finish a theatre program without meeting in person, students like herself are tired after long days dialling in to Zoom classes from other provinces and time zones. Virtual socialization with the group often falls through the cracks, she said.

“It’s like a long-distance relationship with 14 people,” she said from Sydney, N.S. “None of us have the mental capacity to sit and stare at each other in front of a computer any more.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2020.


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