By: Victoria Shulman

Photo by: Victoria Strowbridge

Edited by: Victoria Gibson-Billings

School closures and self-isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on the mental health of many students across the GTA. From already present mental health struggles to border closures, students have dealt with unprecedented stress. During these challenging times, the importance of supporting each other has become increasingly prevalent.

Jelica Arruda is a fashion design student at Seneca College in Toronto. Like most students, she is accustomed to a lot of in-person interaction with her professors and classmates on campus. However, as the spread of COVID-19 became increasingly serious, her life as a student and a part-time employee changed. Jelica’s experience dealing with the global coronavirus pandemic has also been affected by the fact that she suffers from depression. She is also a very extroverted person who strongly prefers speaking with people face-to-face versus virtually. This has made her online school experience challenging and underwhelming.

“In my opinion, I feel like even if we have those actual video calls, like how people have Zoom calls for their classes, I still feel like I wasn’t getting the right experience. I still felt like I was talking to no one.”

Lacking that essential in-person connection wasn’t the only difficulty Jelica had related to online school. She also found the transition to online learning to be very disorganized. Seneca College originally planned to have an additional week of in-person activities when the virus was becoming a greater concern, but when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the closure of Canada’s borders, the administration abruptly switched to an online method.

“Our teachers were kind of scrambling at the last minute so it wasn’t as easy and prepared. It was kind of messy at the start.”

Jelica also works part-time at Rexall, a pharmacy chain. However, due to the fact that her mother suffers from an illness that results in having a poor immune system, she was advised by doctors to stay home from work to protect her mother’s health.

“I haven’t been able to go to work, but I’m grateful that they can pay me sick leave. But I also am thankful that I do have a job when I do go back because they do understand that.”

Naturally, the experiences of being unable to interact in-person with college faculty, missing work, and struggling with the abrupt transition to online learning have taken a toll on Jelica’s mental health. Aside from her diagnosis of depression, the lack of routine and deprivation of new experiences has left her feeling bored and unstimulated. In light of this, she has had to find new ways to keep herself entertained. Additionally, she has been reaching out to loved ones for support.

“I know that I have a really good group of friends … We always talk to each other and make sure that our mental health is doing fine.”

On the other hand, Ria Khan, a first-year neuroscience and human biology student at the University of Toronto Scarborough has been having a very different experience. Ria was born in Guyana and moved to Canada for university. She was living in residence at U of T Scarborough during the outbreak of the virus. Like any university, the students in residence here were often sleeping, eating, washing, studying, and relaxing in very close quarters with one another. Had a student become ill with COVID-19, it had the potential to spread to other students quickly and easily.

“There were no measures in place to stop the spread of the virus. People were going about their daily routines. Some people were acting like nothing was happening. People were still going out. They were still bringing people in. We were very concerned for our health at that time.”

Ria described the fact that there were no rules put in place by the administration to reduce the risk of bringing the virus into residence until after they were asked to move out. There was nothing stopping students from having visitors over or hosting large gatherings until March 19. She explained that during this period, she and her housemates stayed inside their unit as much as possible to stay healthy. She wore a mask to attend lectures and labs before the university switched to online learning and washed her hands frequently.

Additionally, Ria expressed the negative impact that living on-campus during the pandemic had on her mental health. She describes being extremely frustrated and unhappy.

“I remember crying one day because I was so stressed out. Everybody was panicking.”

On top of the pressure of classes, exams, and assignments, she was also dealing with the threat of contracting a highly contagious virus.

“I don’t have any family here. What if I get sick? Who’s going to take care of me?”

Eventually, the University of Toronto decided to close all three of its campuses on March 16, 2020, and asked students to leave residence on March 17. Students had until midnight of the 21 to move out and could only remain in exceptional circumstances. This announcement came at very short notice and left many students in residence in a difficult situation. Many did not have any family in the country and had limited options for places to live off-campus. The decision to close residence came around the same time many nations, including Canada, closed their borders, so some students did not get the opportunity to return to their countries of birth.

Ria has family in both Guyana and the United States, but she was unable to travel to either country. This situation caused a great amount of panic and stress among students, who were also juggling exams and assignments while rushing to figure out their living affairs. While students were given the option to stay on-campus for an additional few weeks, they were told that they would not receive a refund if they chose to do so.

“They did say you can stay on for two weeks more if you don’t have a place to go, but they will not be giving you a refund if you stay on for those two weeks more.”

This crisis will also impact many students’ ability to find employment and places to live in Toronto off-campus come the fall semester.

Upon moving day, students had many things that they could not pack and wanted to donate, such as clothing, kitchen utensils, and uneaten food. There was no system set up by the university’s administration to collect such donations, so it all went to waste.

“People who were unable to move back to their countries could have benefited from that or people that are here suffering from the virus could have benefited,” Ria explained, referring to all the food and clothing that was thrown away.

Luckily for Ria, she has a brother who is close in age and also lives and studies in Toronto’s west end. She spent some time with a family friend until she finished exams before moving into her brother’s apartment, later obtaining a refund for her residence fees.

At-home online learning is a challenge for many students who require routine and structure to stay on top of schoolwork. Ria’s experience was no different. The University of Toronto switched to online classes immediately after closing campuses, forcing students to finish assignments and exams online.

“It was hard to have the self-discipline and the motivation to keep up with online classes.”

Ria talked about the overall psychological impact that this experience has had on her. She describes feeling depressed and uncertain about the future. She felt deeply disappointed to see her plans for finding a summer job and off-campus housing disappear.

“I had all these plans of where I was going to live next and getting a job. And then it was all crushed. That was very hard to accept and deal with. It really took a toll on my mental health.”

Finally, Ria talked about what she relied on for support during these challenging and confusing times. Talking to friends, her parents in Guyana and cousins in the U.S over the phone has helped her stay connected and cope with her current situation.

The issue of school closures, self-isolation, and the COVID-19 pandemic as a whole has impacted the mental health of many students in various ways. Niles Patel is a therapist who has worked at the Health and Wellness Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough since last fall. He shared his recent experience with providing counselling during these challenging times. Recently, it has been via phone.

“I was on CAMH’s telephone support line years ago for four or five years. So that gave me a really good grasp when doing phone sessions because obviously, it is very different in person. And you know, in person you can see body language and gestures and you can have pauses and silence and all of that. But on the phone, it’s tone of voice and rate of speech and those kinds of things. So it’s quite limited in terms of what you can pick up. So the experience has been, I mean, it’s personally not ideal because I do enjoy in-person sessions. But thankfully, people that are having phone sessions are finding it helpful and supportive. So that’s the positive for me.”

Niles reported the typical mental health concerns he sees in clients on a regular basis, including issues with anxiety, stress, depressive thoughts, family and relationship problems, and on occasion, issues with self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Many of these issues have remained the same since the start of self-isolation, however, there have been some changes.

“For some folks, they are obviously finding it challenging with self-isolation because they are alone or they are living here from another country. So there’s that piece as well. A few folks are living with family or in some situations with their spouses. And then there are issues with that which also come up.”

In regards to specific feelings that students are struggling with, Niles had some insight. Self-isolation and being stuck at home all day has left people dealing with things such as loneliness, an altered sleep schedule, helplessness, despair, and low mood.

“Yes. That’s for sure. The feelings of loneliness for sure have come up quite a bit as well. I mean, the sleep one is very challenging because, for some folks, they’ve had sleep issues already before this. And then this just kind of exacerbated that … So there might be a lot of recurring anxiety, thoughts that come across and that’s preventing them from sleeping. Like I said earlier, the entire routine is shifted. So they’re sleeping later, getting up later. Of course, motivation is affected … There are lots of ups and downs.”

Niles also discussed the impact of living through a global pandemic- the massive unknown. Many students had volunteer opportunities, job opportunities, or graduation planned, none of which ended up going as they expected. This can cause doubt and anxiety. People feel like they are no longer in control.

“Is my life going to get back on track? Is some kind of normalcy going to return for all of us? A lot of that unknown, a lot of thinking into the future that we don’t know. That absolutely has impacted a lot of mental health and wellness.”

Additionally, Niles talked about the importance of staying mentally healthy. Maintaining a schedule for yourself, sleeping and waking up at regular times, eating healthy, staying physically active, connecting virtually with loved ones, spending time outside, and giving yourself time to relax are all ways of doing that. Additionally, he enforced that the UTSC Health and Wellness Centre is still available to students for counselling and mental health resources.

Lastly, Niles spoke about how important it is to support each other. Staying in touch via technology, such as video or phone calls, texting, or social media, can have a very positive impact. It can help people feel less lonely and remember that they are loved.

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone differently. Students have been forced to leave residence and switch to online learning. Many have missed out on exciting opportunities. The impact that this has had on mental health has been for the most part negative. However, there is still some light in this dark. Staying connected to family and friends, spending time in nature, and reaching out to mental health professionals are all healthy tactics. This situation has taken a toll on everyone but is not going to last forever. It is important to remember that no one is truly alone in this.