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The University of British Columbia is one of three Canadian universities reporting an increase in the number of students accessing mental-health services in the 2021 school year compared with 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

As students face additional pressures during the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian universities plan to continue offering virtual mental-health counselling among the supports offered through their campuses – services that have seen an uptick over the past year.

The University of Alberta, University of British Columbia and University of Toronto are among the postsecondary institutions looking to keep the option in the mix of supports available to their students. Prior to the pandemic, all three universities had only offered in-person counselling sessions.

“A lot changed with the pandemic,” said Noorjean Hassam, chief student health officer for the University of British Columbia. “We quickly shifted and were able to offer virtual services. This has been really positive for us – a lot of students really liked the virtual services. And right now, our demand is about 50/50 for virtual and in-person.”

The three universities have all reported an increase in the number of students accessing mental-health services in the 2021 school year compared with 2020, when the pandemic first began.

According to the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, stress levels have increased among Canadians during the pandemic. While it’s unclear whether that might be the sole reason for the rise in students seeking help, demand for campus-based mental-health supports is up demonstrably, university administrators say.

This is “not completely unexpected, given the impacts students have experienced during the pandemic, with financial concerns, social challenges and the academic stresses of trying to balance virtual coursework alongside in-person classes,” said Kevin Friese, the University of Alberta’s assistant dean of health and wellness. “We had expected we would see higher numbers than prepandemic, and that certainly has played out this fall.”

Between September and November, 2020, the University of Alberta’s mental-health services provided more than 5,000 consults to students – this fall, the school has seen an uptick of about 10 per cent to 15 per cent in usage of those services, Mr. Friese said, adding those data do not capture the number of students who were unable to access services because of wait times or a lack of available consults.

At UBC, there was a 27.8-per-cent increase year-over-year in students accessing appointments for counselling services – 556 in September, 2021, compared with 435 in September, 2020, according to UBC health officer Ms. Hassam. In September, 2020, all appointments were provided virtually. In September, 2021, when both virtual and in-person counselling began to be offered, “more than half of the students have requested and received virtual appointments,” she said.

The University of Toronto has also seen an increased demand for mental-health supports since the start of the fall term, said Sandy Welsh, U of T’s vice-provost of students.

At U of T’s Scarborough campus, for instance, same-day counselling requests have increased by 54 per cent this year compared with last year – from 81 requests in September, 2020, to 125 in September, 2021. At the Health and Wellness Centre at the university’s downtown St. George campus, requests for appointments have increased by 10.5 per cent – from 3,908 in September, 2020, to 4,317 in September, 2021.

Having both in-person and virtual counselling available to students ensures they are able to access services through the pandemic – and allows them to choose which option suits them best.

UBC’s Ms. Hassam says that even if students know that in-person counselling is available, “they’ll still sometimes choose to go virtual. I think because they’re at home or wherever they are, they feel comfortable,” she said. “Sometimes the travel times are prohibitive, or maybe even the weather. There are a lot of reasons why virtual can work, especially a live virtual face-to-face [session].”

Depending on student and staff satisfaction with the services, UBC will continue offering both virtual and in-person counselling for the coming 2021-22 school year, Ms. Hassam said.

“Our intention is to keep track of how many students picked virtual over in-person and then to make decisions based on that data, because we’d like to be responsive and student-centred,” she said. “I think even after the public-health measures go away, we would like to still offer those services so that we can continue to study what the need is.”

The University of Alberta is also looking to learn from students’ experiences accessing mental-health supports during the pandemic, assistant dean Mr. Friese says.

“We definitely won’t be just going back to the status quo, but really trying to take away some of our key learnings from the pandemic period to be able to inform how we provide services moving forward.”

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