A Mental Health Pandemic

Graphic by Athena Paramithiotis

This story was first published in Going the Distance, the Bull and Bear’s Fall 2020 print issue.

On September 25, Quebec implemented red zone restrictions in Montreal, indicating that the city had entered a second wave of COVID-19. Despite the more obvious impacts of the disease on one’s physical health, COVID-19’s more hidden facets have surfaced in light of the beginning of the school year. The continuation of restrictions and the increasing school pressure has had an extensive toll on the McGill student body’s mental health. 

Ever since the beginning of the pandemic in March, students have been expressing symptoms of depression, OCD, increasing feelings of isolation, a rise in anxiety levels, eating disorders resurfacing, and both physical and psychological claustrophobia. 

U3 Arts student Tima Chokr has expressed that since March, her past anxieties have been adding up and her mental health is considerably more fragile than before. 

“I feel like any inconvenience that adds to my stress now is like, ‘Wow, okay, here we go again,’ especially for mundane little inconveniences to which I never even would have reacted to before,” said Chokr.

U3 Arts student Faustine Dujardin argued that, although she does not feel like her mental health has been impacted directly, she has noticed a change in her everyday routine. 

“My mental health has not been more fragile, but I have become more solitary,” said Dujardin. “My routine changed, I am less sensitive to the news, and I don’t feel the need to go out and do stuff all the time like I used to.”

My mental health has not been more fragile

The implementation and prolongation of the health measures in Montreal also seem to be uniquely affecting international students. U3 Arts student Tiphaine Devanneaux explains that these restrictions make the mental toll of self-isolation heavier. 

“As an international student, our time is counted here. We want to discover Montreal with the time we have left, but as [it] all closes down, the thrill to explore dissipates and you just see the time passing by … without truly being able to do anything,” said Devanneaux.

Dujardin also attested to this, stating that the closing of museums and other kinds of cultural activities has affected her a lot. “I’m just glad I got to enjoy them before it all closed,” said Dujardin. “I’m also happy to be in my third year because I feel like I still got to experience Montreal in a way that new students cannot.”

The online Fall 2020 semester at McGill has only increased the levels of pressure that students feel. Dr. Vera Romano, director of the Student Wellness Hub at McGill, explained how both academic and COVID-19 pressure impact students’ mental health. 

“Hub counsellors have observed that students report increased academic anxiety due to mainly three factors,” explained Romano. “The first one being workload: a number of students report feeling like their workload is increased with remote work. The second one is academic isolation: students feel that it is harder to get academic support from a distance due to fewer group study opportunities. The third one is lower motivation: students find it harder to stay engaged in recorded lectures, and more challenging to have a healthy routine which can make academics more difficult overall.”

Now, I feel 100% worse than I did when the pandemic started

Chork agrees, saying that “isolation in March/April felt more like a foggy dream, but once university started, the restrictions tightened again and that added onto the stress of having to do online school again. Now, I feel 100% worse than I did when the pandemic started.” 

U3 Management student Agatha Allain confessed that self-isolation throughout the semester has led her to be locked in negativity. “Not being able to do anything else but work during the day makes isolation hard,” said Allain. “With nothing to distract yourself with, it’s easier to get stuck in bad thoughts.”

What students often recount is the difficulty of balancing work and pleasure in isolation. Eloise Poncet (U3 Arts) commented on the merging of the personal and professional sphere as a student. “With classes being online, your home becomes the place where you feel most stressed out,” said Poncet. “This role reversal has been really hard.”  

The Student Wellness Hub at McGill has acknowledged that COVID-19 has had a direct impact on student’s mental health, and the Hub has expanded their sectors of activities since last March in response.

This includes live Zen sessions, an Art Hive, and a variety of virtual workshops to help students manage stress, build resilience, and maintain connections. Adding to that, Romano declared that “the Student Wellness Hub has also ramped up Peer Supporter Training initiatives to help support students.” However, some students have not been able to get the support they were looking for. 

“I tried to go to McGill [counselors] and they were fully booked, so I reached out to the ones at PsyMontreal,” said Chokr. “It is obviously not optimal since I still have to pay money while it would be free at McGill.” 

Dujardin also stated that despite the information from the Student Wellness Hub, it doesn’t translate to reality. “McGill has been very good in promoting their mental health support groups via emails and online, but realistically I know that if I needed help right away, I wouldn’t go through McGill because the waiting time is too long,” said Dujardin.

Romano has attested to that lack of available support, saying, “our students’ eligibility to access professional services depends on provincial regulations. Our practitioners can only see students who are physically present in Quebec, and remote appointments mean professionals require more time for the intake process and thus less time for service delivery.” 

Romano also explained that McGill has a hiring freeze in place, making it challenging to fill vacant positions or to add new positions at this time. “Overall, we have seen a 23 percent decrease in the volume of appointments this year. There was a 13 percent decrease in appointments with doctors, nurses, and dietitians this September and October compared to the same period last year, and a 33 percent decrease in appointments with mental health practitioners.”

“Ça va bien aller”, mais il faut en parler!

With the limited accessibility of formal mental health resources, students like Chokr have found alternative ways to cope with mental health problems. 

“Something my therapist recommended is deconstructing your negative thoughts,” Chokr said. “Think of them as if you’re listening to a friend say those things about themselves and give yourself the advice you would give them.”

As this pandemic continues, the McGill community – both students and staff – have shown particular resilience in these hardships, highlighting strength and creativity even when the world is on hold. Although this article relates difficult mental health stories, its intent is to show that even in a time where we all feel lonely, talking and relating to one another can make us feel less alone: “Ça va bien aller”, mais il faut en parler! (It’s going to be ok, but we should talk about it).

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