Pandemic and online learning intensify mental health concerns of students

Year of Hibernation: Marta Edgar, an educational counsellor at SAIT talks about mental health concerns for students on Feb. 9. Like many post-secondary schools, SAIT has been forced by the pandemic to deliver most of their classes online and mental health concerns have intensified. (Photo by Lawrence Malibiran/The Press)

Post-secondary students in Calgary enrolled in online and hybrid learning reported more “intense” mental health concerns because of the pandemic, a new study supports.

A study done by Hanover Research, using Hobsons’ Stafish students support platform, shows that mental health concerns are 75 per cent more common among online and hybrid students, and 68 per cent of students said that COVID-19 had either somewhat or very negatively impacted their mental health. The study used a survey of 1,000 two-and four-year students.

The survey primarily used U.S. post-secondary schools; however, Calgary’s post-secondary schools have similar concerns from their students.

The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) does not have raw numbers, but they found that students feel the negative mental health concerns of online and hybrid learning.

“I think the word I hear the most often is overwhelmed and that is not a mental health diagnosis. This is a reaction to multiple demands, and it’s natural under the situation that we are in,” said Marta Edgar, an educational counsellor at SAIT.

“If somebody is overwhelmed and they have a tendency for depression and now they have a higher chance of getting depressed. But another person may have a tendency of getting addicted to substances instead. So, whatever the person might be more prone to, there they are at more risk because they are stressed and overwhelmed.”

Edgar explained that adjusting to this new way of teaching has not been for everybody, and some students are still struggling, have dropped courses, or dropped out not wanting to feel the stress.

Edgar does not know if more students are reaching out for guidance but states that SAIT was booked as before the pandemic as they are now. But Edgar has found a shift in the concerns students have on top of the usual ones.

“The most common problems is stress, relationships, relationships with family, with dating partners, with all kinds of other people, and managing their workload. But now, this is combined with the stress from being stuck at home or not being able to do what I love to do or not being able to go see people I want to see.”

If  SAIT students feel this stress, Edgar says that SAIT has many available resources for those who want guidance.

This service includes quick access to counsellors to chat with, online workshops, pre-recorded guided relaxation, and others.

University of Calgary (U of C) finds that they have similar numbers of students using mental health services, but the pandemic has also intensified the concerns.

“At the beginning, like last year at this time. Demand for mental health support went down but I think that’s because students were so overwhelmed by adapting to virtual studies to worrying about financial constraints, etcetera. But now it’s back. It’s back up to what it was before,” said Debbie Bruckner, senior director of student wellness, access, and support at U of C.

“It’s very challenging to be studying online for many reasons. So, you add that to being more isolated. And the worrying and anxiety that everyone’s feeling around COVID and around their health. I do think that that intensifies what people are dealing with,” said Bruckner.

Like SAIT, U of C offers their students multiple resources to get the help they need. The service includes in-person, telephone, virtual counselling, and online workshops. The resources may be plenty but there are barriers from students getting guidance.

“One of the biggest barriers is probably around stigma; it’s just growing right now when you’re isolated. It’s hard to connect with other people and realize that your experience has some commonalities. The other one [barrier] is navigating like how do I ask for help,” said Bruckner.

To encourage people to reach out for help, U of C has made access to mental health services as fast and straightforward as possible by removing the waitlist for counselling services.

While this pandemic has been challenging for students, it has also been challenging for post-secondary instructors and staff.

“The staff and professors are having to adapt the way they teach to a totally different environment and a way to connect with students when they’re not seeing them in a class,” said Bruckner.

I think the word I hear the most often is overwhelmed and that is not a mental health diagnosis. This is a reaction to multiple demands, and it’s natural under the situation that we are in – Marta Edgar

“[We are] struggling with exactly the same issue when we work, [we] work online all day. And then any extra meetings or social time or exercise is also online. We are all tired of it,” said Edgard.

The struggles of doing everything online has affected everybody, so it is crucial to get the guidance needed to handle these challenging times.

“I think it’s important for all of us to reach out and support one another and make sure we still have connections. We’re going to get through the many pressures that are facing us right now,” said Bruckner.

About Lawrence Malibiran 3 Articles
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Lawrence Malibiran is working as a writer for The Press during the 2021 academic year.