EXCLUSIVE SERIES: THE KIDS ARE NOT OK: The COVID effect on post-secondary students - Part 2

The Kids Are Not OK

In Part 2 of our NEWSTALK 1010 exclusive series THE KIDS ARE NOT OK: The COVID effect on post-secondary students, reporter Ashley Legassic crunches the numbers, to find out just how much of an impact the pandemic is having on the mental health of college and university students in our province. 

Some of the statistics will shock you - spikes in calls to crisis lines, more students than ever trying to access mental health services.

We take a deep dive into how universities and mental health resources are grappling with this increase...

 

"We're all in the same storm, but in different boats."

Right now, a lot of university students find themselves on a proverbial leaky raft - just trying to get through this storm called a pandemic, until the waters calm. Now, more than ever, students are flooding crisis lines and seeking counselling services.

"I know that the demand has gone way up as well, so my guess is, it's probably across the board in all post-secondary," says Ryerson University's Dr. Diana Brecher.

"Definitely, like many institutions, we're seeing an increased demand for our mental health supports," says Western University's Jennie Massey.

"We saw contacts higher than we had ever seen in previous years," added Good2Talk's Kristen Buckley.

Good2Talk is an extension of Kids Help Phone, but it's tailored to post-secondary students through phone or text. During the first three months of this year, there was no change in the number of students seeking help from the service. 

Then in April, there was a 40 per cent jump in the number of calls compared to 2019. In May, that increase spiked to 51 per cent, and for June, July, and August, the increases were over 20 per cent compared to  the year prior.

Good2Talk's Kristen Buckley says there's a positive aspect to this that we need to look at. The number of active rescues - calls where emergency services have to be deployed to a person in crisis - has stayed stable, which shows students are reaching out for help before it becomes life or death.

"Whatever is bothering them in the moment, no issue is too big or too small," Buckley says. "Whatever it is they're experiencing, if it's big enough that it's bothering them, it's big enough to need to talk about it."

On-campus mental health services at universities like Ryerson and Western have been trying to adapt, dealing with an increased demand, paired with the limited ability to do things in person. Doctors Diana Brecher and Deena Kara Shaffer have transformed Ryerson's Thriving in Action program to Thriving at Home.

Shaffer says it's a for-credit course that prioritizes student mental health and wellbeing. It's more important now than ever.

"It's been really important that we pivot and expand the repertoire, the learning strategies, in terms of learning at home, and learning on screen, and learning in an almost disembodied way.

Shaffer and Brecher wanted to transition the course and adapt it to COVID-19, so that students could continue to cope and be mentally well while learning remotely.

In London, Jennie Massey with Western University says there has been a spike in students seeking mental health services.

"We anticipated that would be a need, so we are fortunate at this stage to be able to meet the needs," Massie says.

Massey says most of the students are seen within 24 hours of their request, and the university is expanding its resources to accommodate this added demand.

"In the spring we did move to virtual counselling. At the time, all of our options were primarily telephone, so students were able to book a telephone appointment. This fall, we're now in a position to offer telephone appointments and also video counselling if students would prefer to have a video appointment with one of our counsellors," Massey says. "In addition, we've extended our hours."

But this is an especially tough time of year for students living on campus. Thanksgiving is coming up, and many of them won't be able to visit their families due to the health risk. So for parents who won't be able to see their child who's in post-secondary school this thanksgiving weekend - how can they check in? How can they make sure their child is ok?

"When you spend the time to say - I really want to know where you're at and I really would like to get a good understanding of how you're feeling, that tells them you care about them.

University of Toronto psychology professor Steve Joordens says it's important to relate to your child - let them know this is a tough time right now. Be honest if you've been struggling, and tell them it's a safe space to open up.

"Communicate the value of their life to you, but even more generally, to the extent there are people that love them and that care about them," Joordens says.

MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES:

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, here is a list of resources that could help: