Noah Eckstein was in his first year at the University of Ottawa when the lockdown changed the course of his studies in biomedical science.
“In the beginning, everyone on campus was anticipating it. We were getting excited about the end of the semester and going to school online,” he says. “After I moved back home, I started to miss being independent, being two minutes away from my friends and being able to study with them.”
Now in his second year at the university, he admits he’s frustrated with virtual lab simulators and watching videos of experiments conducted online.
The rapid shift to online learning, the lack of social activities and stress of the pandemic on students has not been lost on university administrators, many of whom are taking quick action to support students' mental health during this challenging time.
Dr. Elizabeth Kristjansson, a senior psychology researcher and professor at the University of Ottawa, feels the collective sadness that Mr. Eckstein and his entire student body are undergoing as a result of the pandemic.
“Many of us at the university are already concerned about mental health. It’s a major crisis among so many campuses. When the lockdown came down, we also had to consider the impact of student isolation and being separated from their friends,” she says.
Appointed as a special adviser in mental health and wellness this past July, Dr. Kristjansson has been ensuring the actions designed to maintain students' mental health are successfully in motion.
Online townhalls with faculty, students and wellness experts resulted in 12 recommendations. One of them was signing the Okanagan Charter, an international charter developed at the 2015 International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and College in Kelowna, B.C.
It calls on schools to integrate student wellness into all aspects of campus culture. Specific to the pandemic, professors adjusted their syllabuses in recognition of rising student anxiety in this unprecedented time. “The administration recommended five or six small assignments [within a term] instead of one big mid-term final or paper,” she says.
Recently, the administration received a letter from a student who said they felt overworked by this new pace. As a result, the recommendation to faculty is to slow down the workload so students have bandwidth to manage the stress of learning various online platforms and a lack of touchpoints with peers, all while grieving the loss of their pre-COVID university life.
New online services are a vital part of the university’s mental-health strategy, too. The Wellness Hub offers mental-health resources and a chat function where students can connect in real time with peer educators, mentors and staff members who provide support. The portal also facilitates virtual appointment bookings with counsellors.
In the absence of on-campus socializing, students can log on to a virtual Wellness Lounge and join drop-in chats or events. There’s also a service called Academic GPS. Available seven days a week, it offers online learning communities, study groups, workshops, mentors and writing assistance.
Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., also has online resources that are supporting students during the pandemic. I.M. Well is a mobile mental-health program that directs students to campus and community resources specific to their wellness needs. The app can be tailored to specific locations and campuses; Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College implemented the same technology.
In her role as Trent’s associate vice-president of students, Dr. Nona Robinson is busy responding to the student body’s immediate and virtual needs, but she’s also thinking ahead about their future. “There are issues that are exacerbated with the pandemic. Anxiety, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorders are going to be made worse,” she says.
A few years ago, the school adopted a mental-health framework based on a stepped care model developed at Memorial University in New Brunswick, she explains. It matches the intensity of care with the intensity of a patient’s needs. This personalized approach benefits from consistent monitoring and the current lack of direct human contact makes the model challenging.
“There are fewer opportunities to interact,” Dr. Robinson says. “That’s going to be a problem the longer this goes on. How do we increase those touchpoints with faculty and other students who know what to say to someone [who needs help] and tell them what kind of help is available?”
Anticipating the need for face-to-face contact, Trent introduced Student Support Hubs at 11 key locations on the school’s campus. Student employees, who are trained in active listening, referrals, conflict resolution and COVID-19 precautions, assist with everything from career and financial aid counselling to health and wellness services. The hubs are a lifeline for first-year undergrads transitioning to university during the pandemic.
Dr. Robinson also accelerated Summer Connect, a virtual orientation program for incoming students that lasted 12 weeks. Introduced in June, first-year students could log in to weekly information sessions, join academic “squads” within their areas of study and connect with peers and orientation leaders through the Trent University mobile app.
For Keanna Stock, the months leading up to her first day at Trent were full of concerns, such as the safety of sharing residence bathrooms and the added stress of learning online. She was especially sensitive to proper health protocols being in place because her father has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
With physical-distancing guidelines, which mandate only one student per dorm room, and residence cleaning and sanitizing protocols, she now feels more at ease on campus but admits times are tough. However, there’s one special place on campus where she can relax and unwind.
“Learning online is very hard. The workload is a lot more than it would normally be. I’m mentally drained and writing so many papers but with the Tipi, I can just take myself from the work and just be present, talking and laughing outside of my room,” says the undergrad in the Indigenous bachelor of education program.
The Tipi is in the traditional area of the school campus and it’s where Ms. Stock connects with students and her Indigenous heritage to help lessen the continuing stress of pandemic life. All of the facilities on the Trent campus are open and available to the students, although with COVID-19 protocols in place.
Those protocols mean she’s also worried the annual Elders and Traditional Peoples Gathering and Indigenous Women’s Symposium won’t be confirmed because of precautionary measures. “I think I’m missing a big part of my education. It’s a huge part of my program to participate in these events,” she says. Trent is currently investigating a hybrid of physically distanced and digital experiences for both gatherings.
At the University of Ottawa, the campus facilities are currently closed amid modified Stage 2 restrictions in the city, which is a COVID-19 hot spot. For Mr. Eckstein and his off-campus bubble, socializing is now limited to playing basketball at local parks, bike-riding and grocery shopping, but he’s choosing to stay positive. “I have to ride the wave because there’s not much I can do about it. Our options for distractions are limited, but for me, it’s made it easier to focus on my studies.”