Queen’s must take mental health seriously during COVID-19

Discussing Queen’s University’s response to COVID-related mental health concerns 

Greg Adams advocates for mental health services.
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COVID-19 is worsening the mental health of Queen’s students. 

The challenges of socially-distanced academic life call for dramatic overhauls to Queen’s mental health support this fall. Proactive resources on coping with potential isolation, difficulty in connecting with others, and the general challenges of university life must be prioritized over strategies for writing essays or taking notes.

Mental health concerns existed before COVID-19 at Queen’s. In 2018-19, 23 per cent of students at Queen’s had been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety. Nearly 60 per cent of students reported academics as being traumatic or difficult to handle. More than 64 per cent of female students and 49 per cent of male students reported experiencing above average stress levels.

COVID-19 is exacerbating this problem. This summer, 83 per cent of Canadian students reported worsening mental health because of the pandemic. Allowing students access to timely and inclusive mental health support is more vital now. Yet, Queen’s University offers a remarkable lack of proactive resources to address student mental health.

Queen’s has provided guides for students to follow in preparation for their transition toward online classes, yet these resources don't address mental health. For example, Student Academic Success Services has created a ‘transition course’ for the class of 2024, but it neglects the importance of a healthy lifestyle during remote learning.

Furthermore, Queen’s resources regarding the transition from high school to university haven't been updated to acknowledge COVID-19 realities. The Student Wellness Services’ description of university life for first-year students still refers to face-to-face lectures and the bustling campus life of the past. It doesn't mention remote instruction, the differences found in this year’s orientation week, or other COVID-19-related changes.

Queen’s has an opportunity to normalize mental health dialogue during COVID-19. Acknowledging the strains of COVID-19 could lead to the normalization of mental health discussions in university culture and academics. 

This must begin with university leaders. Principal Patrick Deane hasn't addressed student mental health in the return to school on his social media platforms. Doing so would be a visible first step toward change in the atmosphere at Queen’s.

A reaffirmation and emphasis on the principles of the Okanagan Charter—a health-centric charter for post-secondary schools adopted by Queen’s in 2019—would also demonstrate a renewed focus by the University toward addressing and normalizing mental health in its daily operations.

While Student Wellness Services offers one-on-one remote programming to help with developing health-behaviour changes, some students may face accessibility issues as these services are only available for those living inside Canada. 

Mental health challenges must be recognized as a day-to-day reality for both instructors and students. Health-aware, compassionate pedagogy, sometimes referred to as “pandemic pedagogy,” outlines the normalization of mental health in the classroom. Teaching and classrooms can be structured to facilitate student wellness, belonging, and acceptance.

Cultures of belonging in classrooms foster higher rates of student attainment and engagement, which is beneficial to the institution. For struggling students, the support presented by compassionate pedagogy creates an environment in which they can flourish, as individual struggles are no longer left unacknowledged or unaddressed.

For Queen’s, adopting an environment of compassionate pedagogy would mean that instructors no longer view mental health struggles as aberrations. Ideally, discussions of mental health would be normalized throughout the university as we return to academic life this fall. Mental health must become a priority for academic staff across all levels. 

Mental health resources, dialogue, and openness should be ubiquitous across the student experience. A culture of compassionate pedagogy accepts mental health as a constant, shared struggle faced by students and instructors in the university. The isolation and stress created by COVID-19 have undoubtedly increased these concerns. 

The modernization of the mental health dialogue, resources, and culture at Queen’s could reshape the student experience. Mental health and academic success have never been more intertwined than during this COVID-19 pandemic. 

 

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