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A study’s surprising revelation about which post-secondary students are faring better under the pandemic

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

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