Whether in the elementary, high school or post-secondary phase of their education, more students are feeling anxious and stressed out as they negotiate their way through an unprecedented pandemic.
Sleep patterns are a mess for many teenagers and the isolated reality of remote learning is leaving others disinterested or facing mental health challenges.
Counsellors in both the Windsor Essex Catholic District School Board and the Greater Essex County District School Board are hearing similar stories of frustration and fear.
“Our experience is that they do have more concerns around anxiety and depression as well,” said Joe Ibrahim, a superintendent of student success with the Catholic board.
“From the outset we knew this COVID 19 pandemic is stressful for everyone,” Ibrahim said. “So we did anticipate that and we wanted to prepare and be proactive for our students.”
The Catholic board hired eight additional staff in the roles of either Child Youth Workers or mental health professionals.
Ibrahim said the board provided professional development for teachers and principals to aid in recognizing a struggling student early on.
“We want them to recognize when things might not be going well for a student as quickly as possible and connect them with counsellors,” he said.
At the public board, counsellors are seeing a significant increase in student absenteeism.
“The number of attendance referrals is huge,” said Charysse Pawley, a social worker and attendance counsellor with the board. “It’s heartbreaking.”
The board is in the process of hiring two additional re-engagment/attendance counsellors.
Pawley said a report analyzing attendance data will be available next month.
One of the biggest issues, she said, is the disrupted sleep routine of teenagers in particular.
“It’s been clear through our school climate surveys that sleep was an issue years ago and then — welcome to March,” she said. “From March to September, students have had their routines turned completely upside down. We’re hearing of kids in Grade 5 and 6 that are staying up until 5 a.m.”
Pawley noted some students are struggling to handle the condensed learning time frames of the COVID quadmester system.
Others are simply not engaged when it comes to remote learning.
“It can be difficult, how do you motivate them?” Pawley said, adding technical issues with remote learning only add to the disconnect.
Greg Lowry is a mental health counsellor working with students at St. Clair College.
“The primary issue I get with students is general anxiety,” said Lowry who has been seconded to his college role by the Canadian Mental Health Association – Windsor Essex County Branch. “We are seeing an increase in anxiety brought on by the social isolation and the fact there are no face-to-face classes. It’s causing a lot of struggle mentally, socially and academically as well.”
Some students are away from home for the first time, finding their way during a pandemic that “is adding layers of stress to a stressful situation. It is like piling on,” Lowry said. “In the last three or four weeks we are starting to see more of the new students who are reaching out now because the anxiety and stress has started to overwhelm them. We’re consistently getting new referrals and I expect that to continue as we move through the holiday season.”
Dr. Mohsan Beg is the executive director and clinical psychologist for the University of Windsor’s Student Counselling Centre.
Beg is also seeing the detrimental effects of isolation on students who are sitting in front of a computer day after day instead of on campus with their peers.
“Isolation is a big factor,” Beg said. “When it comes to mental health difficulties, isolation is one of the main driving causes.”
He said the centre started this fall offering a virtual COVID-19 drop in support group three times a week.
He noted while in terms of straight numbers of clients, “we’re down 30 per cent from where we were last year but what’s interesting is our appointments are the same. So these same students need help and they need more sustained help.”
Since mid-March, the centre has worked with 600 students and handled 3,300 appointments.
Statistics Canada did a survey of over 100,000 post-secondary students between April and May to gauge how they’ve been impacted by COVID-19.
At 48 per cent, almost half of those surveyed reported they had lost a job or been temporarily laid off. Over a third said they had a planned work placement delayed or cancelled. Fully 47 per cent were concerned about their ability to return to school next term. They listed worries over exhausting savings, taking on more student debt, lost job prospects and an inability to pay bills and tuition.
“There’s a widespread mental health impact on students,” Beg said. “Especially when this is an age group where peer group is so important. All their coping skills, we tell them to socialize, go to the gym, play sports, that’s all been taken away. It’s a double whammy.”
CMHA tips for students include taking care of your body by getting enough sleep, eating well and drinking water. The association suggests building resiliency and reaching out to family and friends for support.
Mental health supports are also available in the community through the CMHA-WECB.
BounceBack is a free, guided self-help program for people 15 and up who are feeling mild to moderate anxiety or depression. It’s available at bouncebackontario.ca.
Information on campus mental health resources across Ontario is available at campusmentalhealth.ca.
There is also treatment and support for children, youth and families free of charge through Children’s Mental Health Ontario Centres at cmho.org.