COVID-19: Mental-health crisis impacting postsecondary students

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      By Kaelynn Shinkaruk

      Online learning, social isolation, financial hardship, and fear of COVID-19 infection are taking a toll on the mental health of postsecondary students.

      As a first-year master’s student, I’ve struggled with feelings of fear, hopelessness, and frustration.

      Approaching the first anniversary of the COVID–19 pandemic, postsecondary institutions need to take decisive action to be proactive in addressing the mounting mental-health crisis. Mental-health literacy needs to be woven into the academic curriculum and supported within the fabric of classrooms.

      The four components of mental-health literacy are reducing stigma, positive mental health, knowledge of mental-health issues and treatments, and help-seeking efficacy.

      Every student must be equipped with knowledge as they face the challenges of today and the future.

      Gravity of the Issue

      A Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) COVID-19 document identified that more than 70 percent of students reported that they have felt stressed, anxious, or isolated.

      The effect of COVID-19 is being studied by international organizations, including the World Health Organization, which identified mental health as an integral component of responding to the pandemic. It has reported that 75 percent of school prevention-and-promotion mental-health services and programmes have ceased or been disrupted across the world.

      Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry released has said that all public colleges and universities need to prepare for a safe resumption of full return to on-campus learning in September.

      Revisions to the COVID-19 Go-Forward Guidelines for B.C.’s Post-Secondary Sector—jointly developed by postsecondary institutions and the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training—must place mental-health literacy at the forefront, as data show that 80 percent of students reported that COVID-19 has negatively impacted their mental health.

      First steps: Challenge stigma

      “I am scared to tell anyone how I feel because they will think that I’m crazy,” a student might say.

      Stigma is a negative stereotype, resulting from a lack of knowledge. Everyone must understand that it is not a form of weakness. Those who are stigmatized are devalued, which can result in discrimination and unjust treatment.

      We need the facts, not the myths. To decrease stigma, we must demonstrate acceptance, dignity, respect, and equitable treatment. Then students will be more willing to reach out for help.

      It’s time to open up the conversation and be transparent. Mental health is just as important as physical health. Promoting positive mental health and well-being is vital to academic success and overall well-being.

      Fear, worry, and stress are normal responses during the pandemic. Positive mental health allows you to function, have meaningful social connections, positive self-esteem, and be resilient.

      Being able to identify stress and learn how to successfully overcome it is fundamental to good mental health. At times, students may feel like they can’t keep functioning.

      Educate about mental health issues and treatments

      Have you heard your friends or family use the words depressed, anxiety, or OCD, as everyday terms? We must be educated about the true meaning of these.

      Students need to be engaged in thoughtful discussions about how mental illness affects a person’s thinking, feelings, or behaviour, which can cause distress and difficulty functioning.

      Mental illness is a medical condition that has been diagnosed by trained professionals and can be effectively treated, so it is possible to have a mental illness and have positive mental health.

      Early intervention is key

      Did you know that during the pandemic's past year, 16 percent of postsecondary have seriously considered suicide and almost three percent attempted suicide?

      Students need to know that they are not alone. Help can come from a friend, professor, teacher assistant, or coach. No one expects postsecondary staff to be mental-health-care providers, but they can support students in need.

      It is essential that students are aware of the mental health supports and services as they return to classes in September. Postsecondary institutions need to develop a sense of community through professional services and peer support programs.

      The time is now

      Postsecondary institutions need to implement mental-health literacy to all their communities. Students are stressed, stigma is prevalent, and there is not enough education or resources—and institutions need to do more.

      I urge all postsecondary institutions to utilize the Mental Health Commission of Canada's National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students as a starting point to implement major structural changes to educate about mental-health literacy.

      It’s about time that mental-health-literacy training be a requirement of postsecondary staff. No one expects them to diagnose mental-health issues; rather, they should be educated and aware.

      Let’s follow the lead of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, which has embraced a free Canadian educational resource to build knowledge and empower their community.

      What can you do? Share your voice with your postsecondary institution—advocate for mental-health literacy. It’s a priority!