Last year during exam season, Sarah Vereschagin and her friends would book study rooms on campus, do coffee runs and use whiteboards to study.
This year, the University of British Columbia student has spent the majority of her time studying alone with the comfort of her screens.
Vereschagin, a third-year accounting and business technology management student, says being surrounded by the presence of her friends was the only way she knew how to recharge and get through stress. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, she says she has lost motivation to study.
“It felt like I wasn’t in school, but I had all the same academic consequences,” she said. “I remember (in October) just laying on my floor and panicking that I wouldn’t be able to complete everything.”
Throughout the pandemic, post-secondary students across the country have been navigating through online learning paired with social isolation, which has caused additional strains to their mental health, experts say. As they return for another semester of online learning in 2021, like many others, students are now also simultaneously combatting COVID-19 fatigue.
Vereschagin is also president of UBC’s Mental Health Awareness Club (MHAC), a student-run club aimed at destigmatizing, educating and supporting student mental health.
“Burnout is so common within students,” she said, adding that the activities students typically do to recharge, like going to the gym or seeing friends, are no longer available.
The second wave is leading to more fatigue
Last semester, students across Canada led petitions that circulated online to extend their winter breaks at schools like UBC, the University of Toronto, Brock University and more, citing heightened challenges and stress due to the pandemic. But while some schools have extended the break, the upcoming winter semester still poses hardships for students’ learning and well-being.
According to Nancy Heath, a university professor of educational and counselling psychology at McGill University in Montreal, at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, students had the habituation of an “I can do this” attitude, but today this isn’t the case.
“What we’re seeing in this semester that we were not seeing (before) is a level of fatigue that has led to an incredible decrease in coping resources.”
“Students are at an all-time low,” said Heath.
“This coming month is going to be the hardest for our students, for our instructors, for all of us,” she said.
Grappling with screens, isolation
Stephanie Zito’s own hardships with mental health played a role in her drive to study the topic with Heath at McGill.
The first-year PhD student also started an Instagram account during the summer of 2020 aimed at bridging the gap between technical jargon around mental health and creating an accessible, friendly way for young adults to find community and support.
In addition to pre-existing stressors that have been heightened by the pandemic, like studying for exams, students are also struggling in coping with social isolation and inflexible professors, which have become some of many main hindrances to their studies.
For Zito, social isolation has been the greatest challenge. Living in Montreal, she said that being in lockdown and the recently implemented curfew has left her home all day with only her screen.
“It’s just utter silence. When you’re in person, you’re lingering after class, talking to people in your class. But (online), you have nothing,” she said.
Likewise, Aidan D’Souza, a first-year advanced investigations and enforcement program student at Seneca College in Toronto, said the lack of socializing is a main challenge for him as a student.
D’Souza said he’s getting sick of looking at screens, adding that when he was on campus he used to meet people at events in person, which was much easier than in an online environment.
“The social aspect of post-secondary is such an important part because that’s the time where you meet people, get to know everyone and just enjoy college and post-secondary,” he said.
The ongoing fatigue with online resources
According to Heath, despite some mental health activities being made available in online formats, some students are not joining.
Amara Punia, VP internal of UBC’s MHAC, says the club encountered challenges while moving its programs from in-person to online. This year, the club started a first-year student committee at UBC to try and foster a sense of community and gain their perspectives as new students navigating online learning.
“People were already struggling with their mental health before the pandemic started and now it’s even more stressful,” said Punia.
For years, Loizza Aquino, a mental health advocate and fourth-year student at the University of Toronto, has been speaking out about the inadequacies of the mental health system for students at the school.
Since 2018, there have been five reported deaths on U of T campuses that have led to students continuing to organize better mental health support.
“It’s heartbreaking for me. And also just continuing to fight a battle where our voices as students are neglected makes it difficult to persevere and keep going for such an important cause,” said Aquino.
In December 2020, U of T’s vice-provost Micah Stickel told Global News that the university recognizes it’s a challenging time for students and has “dedicated significant funds” to mental health services on its campuses.
“There are numerous central and divisional budgets for student wellness which include but are not limited to mental health,” Stickel stated.
As a student, last semester was the most difficult for Aquino. On top of social isolation and COVID-19 measures in her place of residence in Winnipeg, she said the lack of deadline extensions created added hardships to completing assignments and exams.
Aquino says offering an institution-wide policy on lessening the strictness of extensions during the pandemic could provide a sense of aid and relief.
“I can’t control if one day my mental health is just absolutely terrible. I can try certain things (like) reach out for external help but sometimes that just doesn’t work,” she said.
Amplifying the needs of students
In order to know what communities need, students say post-secondary institutions should amplify and listen to students to know what initiatives could be revised or newly implemented, said Zito.
She also says offering outreach on social media through informative infographics and livestreams could be more beneficial.
“We’re living in this era where we don’t want anything to be time-consuming. Especially as students we always have something to do,” she said. “To have readily accessible materials that suits our needs is very valuable.”
Zito added that students sometimes don’t read emails and something institutions could work on is finding ways to improve communication and access during an online learning environment.
In terms of online resources post-secondary institutions could implement to help students this winter, Heath said that it is a tremendous challenge but schools can work on delivering opportunities for students to interact with one another.
To Punia, who is also a fourth-year student, it’s important for post-secondary institutions to have efficient resources so students don’t feel alone and have somewhere to turn to to get the help they need.
“If we can help these people, that helps society as a whole, too.”