The State of Student Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in feelings of stress and anxiety in young people across Canada

Joss Arnott // Staff Writer 

“I didn’t know I was depressed when I was quitting school,” said Bella Matungo, a former Capilano University (CapU) student who decided not to return to university last fall. “I was feeling demotivated and not interested in doing anything.” 

Matungo explained that when classes transitioned online, she found it difficult to maintain engagement with the material. Rather than return in the fall semester, she decided to press pause on her education and focus on her own mental wellbeing. In the interim, Matungo started a radio show called A Lonely Mind, on CFUV 101.9 FM. “When I was going through a very difficult time, the only thing that could keep me grounded was music,” she said. From 8 pm to 9 pm every Tuesday, Matungo reaches out to listeners and encourages a positive conversation about mental health through her music.

“When you’re suffering and you’re in a dark place, it’s scary,” said Matungo. “Not only for you, but for the people around you.” 

She isn’t alone. Sixty percent of young people, between the ages of 18 and 24, are reported to have experienced deteriorating mental health brought on by the long-term effects of quarantine and isolation—with 19 percent of those reporting an increase in suicidal thoughts and feelings. 

These statistics are from a nationwide survey conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in partnership with researchers from UBC that emphasized the erosion of mental health in Canada.

Dr. Emily Jenkins and Dr. Anne Gadermann have been examining the mental health implications of the pandemic since last May and were principal investigators in the study released by the CMHA. The two investigators, as well as research fellow Dr. Kimberly Thomson, explained that the results of the nationwide survey illustrate young people are experiencing disproportionately higher amounts of stress and anxiety compared to other age groups. The survey also illuminated the ways in which people are successfully coping with the pandemic. Canadians are staying mentally healthy by walking outside, getting exercise and connecting with family or friends via phone and video chat.

Keith Lam, a CapU counsellor, discussed how the disappearance of socialization led to a lack of rejuvenating energy, as Lam describes it, amongst young people. This has led to difficulties with motivation for many. “[Students] need more time to do what they normally do…It takes you much longer to read a paragraph. You don’t speak as well as you used to. You don’t eat as well as you used to,” said Lam. “[Maybe] you get irritated, or frustrated more often. You get in arguments with your family or friends, but you normally don’t. That implies something might not be going well.” 

Lam encouraged students who felt they might be experiencing a mental illness or have self-diagnosed themselves in the past to reach out to a professional for guidance. “That would be them saying, ‘I have something that concerns me, I need to talk to talk to someone to be sure,’” said Lam.

Lam described a scenario where a student spoke to him about difficulties with her workload in a recent counselling session. “She was doing well last fall, but [then] the exhaustion set in…You just can’t keep doing this alone.” Lam relayed that students often come into his counselling sessions with feelings of stress and anxiety—feelings they hadn’t experienced before lockdown. “There’s no separation between study, work or entertainment,” said Lam, explaining how working at home can often become monotonous. “[It’s] one thing and then the other—you have no breaks.”

According to Lam, the best way to deal with the homogenous nature of the pandemic is to create boundaries. These can be anything from a new change of clothes to switching rooms, the important thing is to reintroduce transitions between activities that have become tangled. 

If students are concerned with the well-being of friends or family, it’s best to share their observations with these people in a way that conveys concern, not judgement. “Ask how they are doing,” said Lam. “Don’t feel one has to do it on their own—help is available.”

If you’re interested in booking an appointment at CapU’s counselling service, you can visit their website here. While wait times are usually long at this time of year, the service offers Same Day Appointments for emergencies, which can be booked by calling 604-984-1744 during office hours. The website also has mental health resources for students here.

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