In Their Own Words

We must help post-secondary students thrive, not just survive

Campus life may be returning to a semblance of normalcy, but the mental health of post-secondary students is still an issue.

It’s useful to remember that post-secondary students had to adapt their entire academic and social lives due to school closures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, taking away opportunities for socializing, hitting milestones and solidifying their careers. The uncertainty led many youth to delay the beginning of their education or move back in with their parents. Restrictions and vaccine mandates mean some of this is still happening.

The disconnect from on-campus activities and student resources was a difficult situation for many, especially those living in less-than-ideal situations such as crowded households or with poor internet connections. Mandatory physical distancing and reductions on social gatherings left many students feeling disconnected from their campuses where support and services are available.

A survey of more than 100,000 post-secondary students indicated that academic life was disrupted in some way for most students, with 57 per cent reporting that their courses were either delayed, postponed or cancelled. The most common disruption reported was a delay in or cancellation of work placements. Slightly more one-quarter reported that some of their courses were postponed or cancelled, including coursework such as labs, applied learning and hands-on instruction that could not be delivered online.

Results were similar when participants expecting to graduate in 2020 were compared with continuing students, with one exception. Twice as many prospective graduates reported that they would not be able to complete their degree, diploma or certificate as planned.

The pandemic made students’ financial situation precarious. Overall, 67 per cent were very or extremely concerned about having no job prospects in the near future, especially those who rely on summer job savings to pay for tuition.

A survey by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations last May found similar results. More than 70 per cent of respondents reported they felt stressed, anxious or isolated due to the pandemic; 82 per cent worried about their futures beyond the pandemic, reporting more stress about everything from their health to their finances.

The social determinants of health play a large factor in the equity issues that exist in accessing mental health care. Although provinces provide free access to mental health care, there are wait lists for these services. Add in that some intake professionals have deemed individuals to not be “bad enough” to need care, such as myself.

How can a person judge whether an individual is in a “bad enough” state to receive mental health care?

Preparing to graduate from Dalhousie University last spring was an extremely stressful time of uncertainty for me; classes were switched online quickly and the fear of not being able to graduate on time was a reality. Alongside my educational experience facing substantial alterations, I struggled with finding employment. As it stands, I am unable to pay for my tuition and rent for the remainder of this year and will be graduating with a high amount of student debt.

With uncertain job prospects and no end in sight to this pandemic, my mental health has been severely affected. During the late stages of the third wave earlier this year, I sought care through the Nova Scotia Health Authority in the hopes of receiving support and finding solace in its services. Upon completing my 45-minute telephone questionnaire, I was told I was not in a “bad enough” state to receive further assistance. I left that conversation not only empty-handed but defeated. How can a person judge whether an individual is in a “bad enough” state to receive mental health care?

My story is only one of many. The lack of access to mental health services means it is taking all of my strength to simply stay afloat. This cannot and should not become the norm for post-secondary students.

We must do better to aid students to thrive and not just survive.

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Authors

Stacie Smith

Contributor

Stacie is the co-executive director of the Young Canadians Roundtable on Health and the founder of the Mental Health Student Support Network. She strives to advocate for youth mental health and to enact change through strategic youth partnerships.

Illustrator

Amelia Hughes

Illustrator

Amelia is a Grade 12 student at Eric Hamber Secondary School. She has done murals around Vancouver as well as a few smaller projects for her community.

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