Aug. 20, 2021

Student anxiety, depression are concerns during return to campus

Mental health expert and advocate on the student experience during COVID-19 and how to provide future support
Mental Health Strategy
University of Calgary

When leaving home to attend university for the first time, students experience a “perfect storm.” Heading into a new and challenging environment, meeting fresh groups of people, and leaving existing systems of support (parents, siblings, etc.) all play a part in the growing anxiety that students face on a day-to-day basis.

Ahead of a national conference on mental health in post-secondary institutions, Dr. Daniel Devoe and Shelley Wearmouth, who recently established the Josephine Wearmouth Memorial Doctoral Scholarship, detailed the anxiety and mental struggles that young students go through and how we can help provide the necessary resources for them.

Pandemic has created another door to anxiety

COVID-19 has touched on many aspects of life, including the traditional design and facilitation of teaching and learning. With new and sudden standards and practices implemented for how students learn, the quick migration to online classes was overwhelming for many.

“From what was for many a comfortable in-person campus environment, the rapid shift to online learning created a lot of challenges” says Devoe, MSc’16, PhD’20, a postdoctoral scholar at the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education in the Cumming School of Medicine's Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI).

In his studies, Devoe found students experienced many new stressors during COVID-19. These include:

  • being isolated student-to-student, in-person interaction (especially for people new to the university)
  • inability to secure employment; ongoing struggles with connectivity to access class material
  • confusion around what needs to be completed for courses due to online navigation

Although some of these additional stressors may be alleviated for many students and educators this fall with the resumption of in-person learning, the transition back to campus, Devoe argues, will still require broad-based support.

“We are going to see students bounce back to campus life at different rates,” says Devoe. “What is important for us is to be diligent in interacting with students to keep their well-being in check and remain accommodating for any issues they may have.”

Stressors of academic success take a toll on mental health

The academic pressure that students face while attending post-secondary and the implications that can have on health has existed before the pandemic, and it’s one Devoe and Wearmouth have highlighted when thinking about how faculty, staff, and students return to campus.

For Wearmouth, BSc (Eng)’83, MEng’94, a parent and community mental health advocate, it takes an entire campus community to care about and prioritize mental health.

“Students need to feel empowered to prioritize their mental health, along with knowing that their academic success can be better supported when they are otherwise thriving,” she says. “It’s harder to take on new academic challenges when our mental health is suffering.”

Personal experience and research findings inform action

In order to combat the stressors students are faced with, Devoe and Wearmouth have been involved in the creation and implementation of programs and scholarships, respectively, that encourage support systems led by students.

After losing her 19-year-old daughter, Josie, to suicide in 2017, Wearmouth perceived there is a gap in access between a student needing and receiving help, either through traditional support services or through social and other peer connections. The Josephine Wearmouth Memorial Doctoral Scholarship was created in response. Its main purpose is to inspire student leadership and empower students in campus mental health by supporting graduate research in suicide prevention.

In collaboration with Student Wellness Services, Devoe, along with Dr. Gina Dimitropoulos, PhD; Dr. Scott Patten, MD, PhD; and Dr. Jennifer Thannhauser, PhD, has been involved in creating the Unified Protocol app. The app is a messaging service based around a peer-support model, that is, connecting students with other students going through emotional distress, depression and anxiety.

Devoe also shared research findings during Collaborations for Change, a first-of-its-kind national conference that aims to connect research and practice in post-secondary mental health. Co-hosted by UCalgary, this year’s inaugural conference was held online Aug. 12 and 13. View a recording of Devoe’s presentation by registering for the conference – all presentations were recorded and have been made accessible for one year post-conference.

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The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. Learn more about the strategy here.