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Relationship breakups, exam stressors, homesickness, and fights with roommates are no longer the main difficulties affecting university students. Instead, mental health experts describe post- secondary students’ struggles as vast — everything from depression to anxiety, stress, eating disorders, substance use, trauma, abuse, and occasionally a first episode of psychosis. Living through the pandemic has only made these problems that much more visible and obstructive.
In the Spring of 2019, an online survey of more than 55,000 (55,284) students from 58 Canadian post-secondary institutions found that more than 16 per cent had seriously considered suicide, almost 69 per cent had experienced overwhelming anxiety, and 51.6 per cent had “felt so depressed it was difficult to function” over the previous 12 months.
With Covid, experts suspect that the situation has likely only gotten worse. A study published in an April 2021 article in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that the mental health of university students (aged 18 to 25) has been “particularly impacted” by the pandemic. And a research article, “Lifestyle and mental health disruptions during Covid,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, reported alarmingly high increases in depression among young people during the pandemic. The authors’ found “dramatic changes” in college students’ sleep, physical activity, mental health and time use from before to during the pandemic.
The result? The pandemic has created a “perfect storm” on our university campuses, says psychotherapist and former school teacher Kevin Waldbillig.
Once predominantly white and middle class, university students now represent a diverse student body from a range of ethnic, multicultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. While benefitting from a student body with a range of voices and experiences, universities don’t necessarily have the services in place to adequately support everyone. And with Covid, there is even less access to treatment and supports on campus: marginalized groups are at a particular disadvantage.
So great are the number of stressors facing post-secondary students, that it can be overwhelming to unpack the range of problems that are challenging their mental health. But there are some overriding issues that experts point to as particularly strong culprits. They describe the ravages of social media, which has had an even greater influence on students in the absence of in-person connections. They talk about isolation and loneliness, especially for international students living so far from home. And they point to a lack of preparedness that disadvantage many from meeting the challenges of university life.
Admittedly, there are also some mitigating factors that have benefitted some students during the pandemic. Social media, when used properly, has worked to connect communities who can’t be together in person. And some students find studying from home, rather than at school, to relieve social anxiety and to reduce stressful comparisons to their classmates, particularly when this home life is stable. But these are exceptions.
Here’s what our experts have to say on the topic.
Students may not be prepared
Adele Rezai, who is a Grade 12 business studies teacher as well as a psychotherapist, says that if students fall behind in Grade 9, they are much less likely to get back on track. Sometimes mental health issues contribute to their academic challenges, while other times the gap in their learning causes them stress, anxiety, depression and a sense of inadequacy, says Rezai. Because many mental health issues can’t be diagnosed before the age of 18, and puberty can conflate symptoms, it can also be difficult to get a clear impression of someone’s mental health until they are university age.
Tahir Malik, a registered psychotherapist and director of Focus Centre (Optimizing Brain Function), suspects that some problems students have adapting at university comes down to helicopter parenting in their younger years. “The majority of parents are scared,” says Malik. “Their apprehensiveness and lack of confidence in their children makes them misaligned [with what these young people’s needs are], he says. “Too much protectiveness, [scheduling] and vigilance rob our kids of growth opportunities. Parents need to be helpful without being suffocating.”
Social media creates unrealistic expectations
Experts also see social media as creating a huge problem for the younger generation, one that affects their self-worth, and that can lead to an addiction, Rezai says.
“We [my peers and I] grew up within familial boundaries and expectations, but millennial youth are no longer living within those boundaries,” she says. Instead, “the options and possibilities seem limitless” — from travelling to places we never imagined were in our reach, to wanting to eat at Michelin-star restaurants; to having homes, cars and technology; to attending programs and getting jobs we never thought possible. “They want them all, and they want them fast.” But not everyone is able to achieve or acquire these things, creating a huge gap between those who can and those who are marginalized.
With so much choice, “it is pushing the ability of the brain to function, regulate and organize [all the stimuli that is coming at them],” she says.
Malik concurs. “A perception of excess [on social media] is playing its role… People present as if they are living a super life. Twenty or 30 years ago, we never craved the things that youth do now because we weren’t exposed to them. Now the sky is the limit. And when people can’t achieve or acquire these things, it breeds dissatisfaction.”
Social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat also feed a desire that young people have to be loved, wanted and admired. “They want to look [good], to garner immediate adulation and to get likes,” Rezai says.
Social media also exacerbates feelings of loneliness. “Cognitive distortions and thinking traps influence the narrative of what is healthy,” says Waldbillig. “Young folks may be impressionable, because of limited experiences, so may not accurately process situations. [In a constant state of social comparison,] they may minimize their own accomplishments, goals and dreams and maximize their problems or concerns.”
What these young people really need are to be connected with others, he says, citing a longitudinal study on happiness conducted by Harvard researchers that found close relationships (with for example, friends, social circles and family) to be strongly associated with happiness.
“Healthy relationships are built on respect. I believe students need to know what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like in college and university. Dating violence is very common among college students and can happen in heterosexual and same-sex relationships.”
Young people robbed of social connection
“University experience should be about learning and growing and socializing – but the stresses and negative side have only increased while “everyday unexplainable enjoyments” [the things that happen with chance encounters, as they do on campus] …have decreased,” says Malik.
For many, online dating and social media platforms offer up an idealized and exaggerated sense of the pool of potential partners in the matchmaking process.
And with students all learning from home, “Covid is robbing young people of the ‘social experiment’ part of university,” Waldbillig says. “Students in college and university may be struggling to fit in and feel homesick, while those not in school can feel disconnected from important social groups or communities. Young people are also often making critical decisions about their professional and personal lives and relationships, which can add to the stress and sense of isolation.”
And international students, who are already under huge pressures to succeed, at great financial cost, are particularly isolated in the pandemic: many are unable to get back home to see their families, so their loneliness may be felt that much more deeply.
Both domestic and international students are “asking the big existential questions. ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What is the next step?’ It’s hard for them to feel hopeful at this time when many feel hopeless,” says Waldbillig.
Third-year University of Toronto law student Charlotte Butler speaks nostalgically of the undergraduate program that she attended at McGill University in Montreal before Covid hit. Even going to the library together gave you “more a sense of a community to deal with stress,” she says. You could laugh together, go for coffee, take breaks to go for a walk. Even talking to people in the hallway before and after class offered an opportunity for social contact that is not present now during this pandemic.
Now with the pandemic, everything has changed. Because you are not seeing people in person, you are less likely to be alerted to the fact that a fellow student might be struggling, and are thus less likely to check in on them, says Butler. Covid has imposed other stressors too. The constant shifts between in-person and online learning without much notice is really disruptive to students’ routines. They just want to go back to school and see their friends.
A silver lining in Covid?
Butler also cites some positive elements amidst the ravages of Covid. As she says, “the language of mental health has exploded.” Professors now end their emails to students with comments like, “take care” or “take time for yourself” or “get out for a walk.” They know that students are struggling.
“While some professors have always tended to be more understanding in general, I think it’s forced professors across the board to reckon with these issues in a way that is more explicit.”
Waldbillig also sees how — with increased visibility and tolerance of mental health issues — youth are now recognizing that physical and mental health are interconnected. And with celebrities and athletes opening up about their own mental health struggles, youth are talking about their own concerns with less stigma attached.
For some students, other stressors have also been reduced, at least for a time. Butler says that pre-Covid, accommodations at law school required formal requests, and you’d literally need to be having a breakdown before you could get an extension. But — at least early on in the pandemic – professors demonstrated more compassion for what students were experiencing.
She says that the pandemic has also sheltered her and her classmates from the “pressure cooker” that is law school. By working from home, you can better control your environment, so that you’re only seeing or speaking to people you choose to communicate with, Butler says. In that way, you are less likely to compare yourself to classmates about the number of interviews you’re getting for jobs, or if your marks are better or worse than others, particularly on courses where there’s a bell curve, which pits classmates’ performance one against the other.
Law school also “try to create rigid rules that replicate more professional settings,” Butler says. But the pandemic has forced teachers to slow down, be less demanding and more aware of potential mental health struggles their students may be experiencing, she says.
As a more mature student (Butler is now 28), she is also less invested in the adulations that many people focus on with social media. Instead, she has appreciated how social media has helped them to be less isolated from friends, and more aware of social movements, like Black Lives Matter.
Who is responsible?
One of the big conundrums amidst this mental health crisis is who is responsible for the well-being of young people at post-secondary institutions. As well as being centres for learning, are educational institutions equipped to handle the extent of mental health problems amongst their students? And if they aren’t, who is? Is it the parents? Private therapists? The students themselves?
University wellness and counselling centres have been struggling to meet increased mental health demands of its students. Some have responded by offering briefer therapy (sometimes as little as just one session), by providing more group therapy to reach more people, and by offering workshops on everything from managing stress to harnessing resilience and learning time management skills. At the same time, professors are trying to meet individual students’ learning and mental health needs with accommodations in their classrooms.
Strategies for supporting student wellness
Easing the stress on students entering post-secondary education will likely involve not just enhanced mental health services but efforts to optimize every aspect of student life. That means doing everything from reducing financial burdens to encouraging better sleep hygiene to providing healthier food options to considering more accommodations in the classroom.
Here are some suggestions, many already in place — although inconsistently — across North American universities.