Three months into her first semester of studying computer science at the University of Toronto, Jane ended up in the hospital.
She thinks it was because of stress — from working on assignment after assignment, struggling with her math professor’s expectation students learn directly from the textbook, feeling disconnected from classmates and having been diagnosed with anxiety and depression this semester.
She is keenly aware she’s not the only one struggling.
“If you go into any of the [University of Toronto Mississauga] group chat, for [computer science], you can probably find at least one person who is openly saying they’re depressed or suicidal,” Jane — who asked for her real name to not be used so as to not be identified by her professors — told HuffPost Canada.
Five students have died by suicide at the University of Toronto since June 2018, according to student newspaper The Varsity. The deaths, including one last month, have student groups demanding the university take action on mental health issues, especially in light of the burdens being placed on mental health supports during the pandemic.
A University of Toronto spokesperson said the mental and physical health of students and faculty is the university’s top priority, and the institution understands the pandemic has brought challenges such as isolation and loneliness. The university is delaying the start of the winter term for undergraduate students by one week to allow people to “rest and recharge,” the spokesperson said.
Mental health supports available to students include individual and group counselling and an app that offers 24-hour help through an online chat or phone call. The university has increased its investments in base funding for mental health programs and resources by 40 per cent over the last three years, the spokesperson said.
“... students are human and they’re struggling.”
Jane has accessed the post secondary institution’s counselling services, but said she was told by a counsellor the centre only offers five free sessions across both semesters. She’s worried about the impact of having to suddenly stop once she uses them all.
However, the university spokesperson said there is no cap on counselling sessions. Counselling operates under a short-term, solutions-focused model and they said additional counselling time is an option. Counsellors can also help students transition to community care programs.
Professors, who Jane said have mostly been supportive, have directed her to an app to connect with professional help, but the wait times are at least 45 minutes and students have to stay on the app while waiting, which drains her phone’s battery, she said.
As students and faculty continue to adjust to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, some say they’re struggling with increased workloads and mental health concerns and want to see more support from their university.
It’s important to recognize the pandemic isn’t affecting all students equally, Taslim Alani-Verjee, a clinical psychologist at the Silm Centre for Mental Health in North York, Ont., told HuffPost. She noted some Black and Indigenous students, students of colour, and those who have disabilities may have already felt isolated or disconnected from their classmates.
Even before the pandemic, colleges and universities tended to put so much pressure on students that it led to a deterioration of their mental health, said Alani-Verjee, who also teaches at several post-secondary institutions.
She’s said she’s noticed she feels less passionate about teaching online, which can make juggling the workload of teaching more difficult since it’s now less enjoyable than it used to be. It’s also harder to meet and get to know students, she said, which makes it tough when it comes to writing reference letters for students applying to masters or doctorate programs.
In March, when classes moved online, Alani-Verjee said students in her classes were “not well” and emailed her, stressed about not being able to complete their assignments. She ended up making final exams optional in two of her four courses and weighted students’ grades accordingly.
“And I think that’s one thing I would say is so important as faculty members, is that we need to remember that students are human and they’re struggling,” she said. “And just because we can get through something doesn’t mean we should expect the same of everyone else.”
Widespread mental health concerns
More than half of students and faculty said they were concerned about their mental health in a poll conducted by Navigator for the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA).
The OCUFA poll of 2,700 students and faculty found 55 per cent of respondents were somewhat or extremely concerned about their mental health because of the pandemic.
One-third of students and two-thirds of faculty surveyed also said they have caregiving responsibilities that make it difficult to balance studying or working.
Those feelings are likely shared by students across the country, said Kayla Weiler, national executive representative at the Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Students.
“We’re actually hoping that this is a wake-up call for institutions, both in Ontario but also across the country, that if they’re thinking about a more permanent shift to online learning, that there has to be a substantial amount of investments put in place,” she told HuffPost. “But also, not all students want to learn online.”
One factor in students’ mental health is financial stress, Weiler said. Many may have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, and worrying about paying rent and tuition can take a toll.
More than half of students surveyed, 53 per cent, said the pandemic has affected their finances.
“There has been issues with students accessing mental health resources before the pandemic, let alone during the pandemic,” Weiler said. “So having a long-term plan after this pandemic, and supports immediately, would definitely help students with their mental health.”
Online learning beneficial for some students
Some students, though, are finding ways to manage their mental health during the pandemic.
Bachviet Nguyen, a fourth-year microbiology and immunology student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), said online learning is actually benefiting his mental health.
He’s saving about four hours a day by not having to commute to campus from Surrey, meaning he is getting more sleep and spending more time with his family. In previous years, some days he wouldn’t even get a chance to say hi to his parents or hang out with friends.
“Now, with COVID, I have time to at least talk to my friends on the phone or play games with them,” he said. “Before, [it] would just be like, we see each other in class and that’s it.”
He’s also been able to take on more volunteer roles during the day, since with virtual classes he can study at night or at his own pace.
Sara Kallas, a first-year student at the University of Toronto working toward a politics and economics double major, said she was overwhelmed at the beginning of the semester. As an international student currently in Egypt, some of her classes were late at night, and she was missing out on the social aspect. If it weren’t for the pandemic and travel restrictions, she would have been spending her first year in residence.
But as soon as she learned classes would be online and she couldn’t come to Toronto, she decided to do everything she could to make the best of the situation.
She joined a debate club that meets virtually, and made friends through the smaller “breakout rooms” she was assigned to during Zoom classes. She also uses the university’s mental health support app — finding it useful to talk to professionals and other students, and read articles about issues students are facing.
Because of the time difference, some of her synchronous lectures are late at night but Kallas said her professors have been understanding and granted deadline extensions when she and other students asked for them.
She also knows it’s hard for professors, who chose teaching as a career path and now aren’t working in the environment they expected. She said there’s a mutual understanding between students and professors that online learning is challenging.
“So we collectively try to find solutions, and it’s a really good thing,” she said.
‘Major crisis’ in mental health of faculty
The Navigator poll also found nearly two-thirds of faculty, 63 per cent, are concerned about their ability to adequately teach and support students during the pandemic.
The poll indicated 77 per cent of faculty members have had to reduce the time they spend directly engaged with, or mentoring, students. The majority, 83 per cent, also reported an increase in their workload compared to before the pandemic.
Online learning is leading to a “major crisis in mental health” for faculty, Rahul Sapra, president of OCUFA, told HuffPost.
“Professors are working very hard to interact with students, but the work overload is so high that it is almost impossible to respond to every single email that a professor gets,” Sapra said. Some professors are teaching 200 to 400 students, he said, and although they’re doing their best they can’t meet the demands on them.
Another concern is contract instructors — who make up more than half of faculty in Canada — are underpaid and may have already lost jobs if fewer courses are being offered, Sapra said, adding that could create “severe instability” in the post-secondary system.
It’s an issue for professors across the country who are feeling the brunt of the pandemic.
“Not surprisingly, it’s been taking an enormous toll on people’s time and energy.”
A preliminary survey of 2,323 tenure-track faculty members at UBC suggests professors are dealing with “substantial” workload increases, as well as caregiving responsibilities. Faculty also identified stress, anxiety, sadness, and issues around their workspaces, caregiving roles and personal safety concerns as factors reducing their ability to work.
Professors have had to reconsider how to structure their courses and teach in an online environment for students who could be anywhere in the world, while some also have increased caregiving requirements, said Alan Richardson, president of the UBC Faculty Association.
“So there’s been a lot of negotiating … and rethinking everything that we do. Not surprisingly, it’s been taking an enormous toll on people’s time and energy,” he said.
He said he’s heard frustration from some faculty members that the university knows from the survey instructors are facing workload challenges, but has provided only minimal resources.
“You can give us technological help, and you can give us mental health seminars, but what’s causing the problem is the additional workload,” Richardson said. “And the best way to solve that problem is to hire more workers.”
UBC spokesperson Kurt Heinrich said the university has invested more than $17 million to support remote learning and teaching and is allocating more financial support for the winter term. He said new hires are tracked by faculties but there have been more than 550 new short-term hires, including teaching assistants.
The university also has mental health awareness programs for faculty and staff, Heinrich said, including resources for working remotely, dealing with isolation and caregiving support.
‘Nothing wrong with asking for help’
Jane, the University of Toronto computer science student, said she’s trying to find mental health resources that provide unlimited support and don’t cut students off after a certain number of sessions.
But she’s found it’s hard to research those supports when she’s already so busy with school.
Her first semester of school has been “kind of chaotic, to say the least,” she said.
Students who are concerned about their mental health should look into getting academic accommodations that could help with extra time on exams or flexibility with assignment deadlines, Alani-Verjee said.
“These things can make such a big difference in not only how we deal with our anxiety, but also, it may give us a better opportunity to succeed because it’s what we need to be at a level playing field, given the way we’re struggling with our mental health.”
She said there’s no shame in seeking out help or support, whether from formalized therapeutic services or family, friends or professors.
“The anxiety, the isolation, the dissatisfaction, and the disengagement that a lot of students are experiencing right now is normal and it’s OK,” she said.
“And so I would encourage folks who are having a hard time to reach out to someone … [and] know that people do want to be able to support one another right now, and there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.”
If you or someone you know needs help in Canada, contact Crisis Services Canada at their website or by calling 1-833-456-4566. You can also find links and numbers to 24-hour suicide crisis lines in your province or territory here. This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.