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Study finds individuals without pre-existing mental health issues more likely to have declining mental health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic
Fatima Azam, The Mike Staff Writer and Jennifer Zhong, Associate News Editor
As we approach the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health remains one of the top concerns for students. Social isolation and online learning, on top of other stresses from the pandemic, have continued to put pressure on students and the uncertain future of their academic studies and public safety has only contributed more stress.
Joint McGill and U of T study
Researchers from the University of Toronto (U of T) and McGill University conducted a long term study on different at-risk groups within post-secondary education during the pandemic and their mental health throughout the study’s duration. Within a sample of 773 students, they found that those without pre-existing mental health issues were more likely to suffer from declining mental health than those with pre-existing mental health issues. Instead, those with pre-existing mental health issues had improved, if not, maintained conditions relative to pre-pandemic times.
The study compares the students’ mental health from before and during the pandemic via an informative questionnaire. The researchers were informed of seven stresses specific to this demographic from academic alienation to social mistreatment to academic challenges. The participants also reported on the strength of their social support group, difficulties and challenges in emotional regulation, and their symptoms relating to anxiety, depression, alcohol dependency, and more. The study found that those without pre-existing mental health issues reported increasing sadness and higher negative symptoms compared to pre-pandemic times.
The results of the study are reflected in the decrease in notetaker requests over the past year. A U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that requests have actually decreased by a third, likely due to the lectures being recorded. Professors are also encouraged to use more inclusive teaching practices such as reading text out loud, describing images used, and recording live lectures –– all of which may make it easier for students with pre-existing mental issues.
It is clear that post-secondary institutions will have to be attentive and responsive to their changing student body, reinforce its mental health systems, and introduce better means of supporting their students.
In recent years, the number of students registered with accessibility services has been steadily increasing. The proportion of students registered for accessibility services on the University of Toronto Scarborough campus (UTSC) from 2013–14 to the 2019–20 academic year have increased from 35% to 52%. It is important to note that this data is pre-pandemic, so there could be a possibility for an unexpected change in the trend for the 2020-2021 academic year.
In addition, the results of the study suggests that the trend may dramatically increase with students without pre-existing mental issues feeling the strain resulting in an unprecedented and unpredictable increase in use of available resources.
Mental health support
This year, in recognition of the pressures faced by students, U of T has released a new virtual assistant called Navi to help students access mental health support. The anonymous service does not provide medical advice, counselling, or diagnoses; it simply provides the user with the appropriate contact information to seek help. Navi is also completely anonymous, and it can be used by everyone in the U of T community, including family, friends, faculty, and others.
In addition to Navi, U of T offers the U of T My Student Support Program (U of T My SSP) 24/7 by calling 1-844-451-9700 for domestic students and 001-416-380-6578 for those living outside of North America. The service is conveniently also available as an app (My SSP) and accessible in 35 languages over the phone.
Moving forward in these unprecedented times, post-secondary institutions will need to carefully reevaluate their priorities and processes in light of recent studies. The pandemic has critically impacted a larger than expected proportion of the student body and proper measures must be utilized to protect and support these students.