Save students from Covid mental health crisis, sector told

UBC president reveals research findings showing huge impact of pandemic on students’ mental health

November 3, 2020
Santa Ono
Source: THE
Santa Ono, vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia

Universities must act to protect their students from a mental health crisis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic as research shows worryingly high proportions reporting depression or thinking about taking their own lives, according to a Canadian leader.

Santa Ono, the president of the University of British Columbia, also referred to the support that helped him recover after two attempts at taking his own life in his youth, when he spoke at the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Summit, held online.

“The next mental health crisis is already upon us”, and universities must “act swiftly to protect our students”, Professor Ono said.

Students at university, particularly first-years, face “a difficult time of life under the best of times”, he continued.

Undergraduates, he noted, have moved away from their homes and families, often for the first time; are in a new and sometimes confusing environment; are at a “vulnerable stage between childhood and maturity”; have the “academic stresses” of papers and exams that go far beyond their work at school in complexity; are under the financial pressures of perhaps “having to work one or two jobs to pay for their tuition”; face debts when they graduate; and are under growing social pressures arising from the use of social media.

Universities had been stepping up their provision of mental health support over the past decade, but were “not seeming to be able to keep up with demand”, he added.

Professor Ono said he “spoke from lived experience”, having “tried to take my own life twice when I was young, first when I was only 14 years old”.

“It’s for that reason that this [mental health] is a topic I talk about far and wide,” he continued.

He added that he was “no exception”, as in Canada, for example, one in five deaths among young people is attributed to suicide.

“Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has greatly increased the problems that they [young people] face,” Professor Ono said.

In the absence of a vaccine, the pandemic could have a “massive effect on mental health” and “it will impact on our campuses”, he added. “In particular, students are at risk.”

Students are unable to join campus clubs or make new friends during the pandemic, while they may also face financial and health crises in their own families, he observed.

UBC and 10 other North American universities have mounted a collaborative research project looking at the impact of the Covid pandemic on students’ mental health, Professor Ono said.

“Among 120 Canadian and US post-secondary students with mental health challenges interviewed at length by researchers…more than 90 per cent say they have anxiety, and 80 per cent report suffering from depression,” Professor Ono revealed.

“More than half say they considered quitting school as a result of their mental health challenges.

“A striking 46 per cent had ideated suicide seriously.”

The majority of students interviewed cited “workload and academic deadline pressures as key mental health stresses”, but many also referred to “isolation and existential angst over current political events”, he said.

“Nearly 60 per cent of those interviewed said they had had to wait weeks, sometimes months, for a first appointment on campus to see counsellors,” he added.

UBC has introduced embedded counsellors within different faculties, as well as specific counsellors for Indigenous and international students.

There is round-the-clock access to mental health services for UBC students anywhere in the world, via phone, text, online chat or “in person where available”, Professor Ono said.

“I know that I would not have made it through the dark times of my youth without the support that I did receive,” he added.

UBC is also recruiting a chief mental health officer.

Asked about the view expressed by some that universities are excessively “coddling” students in a way that fails to prepare them for the outside world, Professor Ono said that view was “simply unacceptable”.

He continued: “When we take individuals into our community, we have a responsibility to care for them.”


Print headline: Help cut Covid toll on mental health

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Reader's comments (2)

Students with a mental health issue perhaps are in the wrong field of study, as they should be focusing on their studies and periferal activities should only be a relaxation, not a major problem.
Our students are responding to the government's fear propaganda and have been failed by an academic community who prattle on about "critical thinking" in the transferable skills sections of their course outlines, but who have abandoned the practice in their own professional lives. Any semi- rational person who takes the trouble to look at the Covid-19 stats provided by the Oxford based Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine can see that this virus is much less of a threat to our students than our own failure of leadership. It's time this community got behind people like Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and host of other people worthy of our profession. I am 70 and frustrated that I won't be able to meet the students I will be teaching in the New Year. I'm only sorry that I passed on my teaching of scientific methods to younger colleagues, for now I have a wealth material on how not to interpret data and the effects of fear on our higher brain centres.