A new study out of the University of Toronto revealed surprising results, researchers say, on how students’ mental health has fared during COVID-19 and under the pandemic-mandated campus shutdown earlier this year.
The study, published in early September in the journal Canadian Psychology, revealed that U of T students with mental health concerns are faring similarly, or better, under the COVID-19 pandemic than they were a year ago.
But students who have no history of mental health issues reporting a higher level of depressive symptoms during the pandemic than they had previously.
Chloe Hamza, assistant professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at U of T and lead author of the study, said the findings went against her expectation.
“We expected that students with pre-existing mental health concerns would be the ones who are most vulnerable to the psychological impacts of COVID-19,” Hamza said.
Instead, she said it was students who were faring well academically and socially that suffered more when the pandemic hit.
Students who were already struggling, Hamza added, said they were dealing with feelings of loneliness and isolation before the pandemic began. As a result, those students with pre-existing mental health conditions reported lower levels of academic alienation and friendship problems under lockdown.
They also reported slightly decreased perceived stress and feelings of being a burden.
Hamza said this is likely due to the reduction in academic, work or other time commitments under lockdown, which may have made life a little bit more manageable for those who were already having a hard time.
But students without pre-existing mental health conditions reported higher rates of alcohol consumption and depressive symptoms compared to last year as a result of the pandemic, prompting Hamza’s study to conclude there was a link between social isolation and worsening mental health among university students — the study states that “increasing social mistreatment” led to greater psychological distress among students.
Researchers surveyed round 730 second-year University of Toronto students in May. Those students were already surveyed about their mental health a year prior in 2019, and researchers compared the recent findings to those from last year to identify how students’ levels of stress and anxiety have changed overtime.
The University of Toronto, like the majority of universities and colleges across Canada, cancelled in-class sessions since March 13, and students are still learning virtually. Most big social events like Fall Orientation or Thanksgiving dinners have been cancelled and are being held online, redefining what once were pivotal aspects of university and college social life.
Little is still known through research about how students are handling this sudden shift to their daily reality. But Hamza’s study is one of the first looks at how students’ mental health in Canada is changing in light of the pandemic — a young cohort in an age group that has also recently accounted for a big chunk of new of COVID-19 cases as major cities in Canada experience a second wave.
Julia Pereira, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, which represents around 150,000 students in the province, said university students have felt immense pressure since the pandemic began. Academically, Pereira said they’re worried about excelling in this new online learning environment. As for their social life, she said many students profoundly miss the physical campus community.
“Students are used to coming back, starting school and being surrounded by their friends and their peers and meeting with their professors one on one,” Pereira said. “I think that they’re missing that social interaction.”
Pereira, who also serves as vice-president at Wilfrid Laurier University’s student union, said many student leaders and universities across the province have tried to replicate some of these social experiences online.
But “unfortunately,” she added, “these online experiences aren’t going to completely substitute that social aspect of university that students really value.”
Hamza said her study’s findings underscore how important socialization is to post-secondary students, and that they’re a cohort that needs to be further supported by their community. She added the rise in COVID-19 cases among youth could be driven by the need of this young cohort to build connections and hang out with peers.
“Emerging adulthood is this period where there is an increased need for affiliation,” Hamza said. “So how do we find ways to support young adults in their affiliated needs, while also adhering to public health recommendations? I think that’s something we need to think about.”
But she said it’s important to also realize students are more vulnerable to spread of the virus because they also often live in shared housing, and may not have the luxury to safely isolate should they fall ill.
While Hamza’s study offers a glimpse of how students were feeling in May, a few months after lockdown, Marija Padjen, director of the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health, said students are likely still feeling the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health and will be for months to come as the pandemic continues to rage.
It is why she emphasized a message of hope and taking care of oneself as daily life continues to be disrupted: “How do we make sure we’re exercising, we’re getting sleep, that we are reaching out to supports that have been put into place, both within our campuses, but also within our country?” Padjen asked.
Padjen added students who are struggling should reach out to mental health resources like Good2talk, a 24/7 helpline for post-secondary students in Ontario or Nova Scotia, or BounceBack, a free online program that is designed to help youth manage a low mood, mild to moderate depression and anxiety, as well as stress or worry.
Even “within the social distancing realm,” Padjen said, “there is still the capability and the capacity for us to reach out and connect to each other.”
Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star