The 'stress is coming back.' Students weigh in on mental health on campus under COVID

With all the uncertainty and stress that COVID-19 has created, McMaster University students talk about how they're coping with student life in the middle of a pandemic.

McMaster University's Dean of Students says 'this will definitely be a term of transition'

Fourth-year student Anika Anand is director of the Student Health Education Centre at McMaster University. (Andrew Mrozowski/CBC)

Anika Anand knows that for students, when it comes to mental health on campus, it's stressful and it's complicated. 

There's stress in finding housing and learning remotely from outside Ontario or even outside of Canada. That's on top of the stress students face to succeed in their classes. Anand is the director of the Student Health Education Centre at McMaster University, a 'peer-run health advocacy' service.

"In a school as diverse as our own," she says, "we have to be mindful that many individuals are not currently living in Hamilton (and) a large portion of students are out-of-province or even out-of-country. So that poses really big concerns and adds extra stress to the students' lives, especially related to finding housing options."

McMaster University used a hybrid method of education this past semester. While most classes were held virtually through Microsoft Teams or Zoom, some students were able to take in-person tutorials and labs. 

Brenda Jarvi and Cinthiya Sugumar are upper-year students and the co-presidents of COPE, a student-lead mental health initiative focused on alleviating pressure and stigma surrounding mental health. 

"(In September 2020) I think people started to get a little bit more comfortable with (online school)," Sugumar said, "creating a schedule that was a little bit less overwhelming. But now as we're transitioning back to in-person, I feel like a lot of that stress is coming back. (I) do know that Mac has offered a lot of classes in-person and online both this semester and next semester to help students with that transition."

Jarvi added that "Overall, I think a lot of students, especially international students, (a) hybrid environment can cause a lot of stress." 

Approx. 5000 students take to Dalewood Ave. in hamilton during an unsanctioned Homecoming event near McMaster University's campus. (Andrew Mrozowski/CBC)

Unsanctioned parties on campus relieved stress

In October, many Ontario universities were under fire due to large homecoming parties that were being thrown in the communities that surround the schools. At McMaster an estimated 5,000 students attended an unsanctioned gathering. Student leaders at the university believe that while mental health wasn't the only reason the party happened, it likely played a role.

"Just from hearing the (number of students who attended)," Anand said, "I think it makes sense that an increase in numbers could be because of that feeling cooped up and needing to get out."

Anand said "as a service, we were quite disappointed with the way in which McMaster students conducted themselves and represented our school community, especially at an unsanctioned event... I think it's safe to say that this event in itself was the cause of increased stress levels within the community, maybe not necessarily students."

McMaster University's Dean of Students, Sean Van Koughnett, says he's been noticing rising stress levels as well. He said "For some students, the return to some in-person learning has created anxiety. Others have welcomed a mix of remote and online learning, while others long for the pre-COVID days of in-person "normalcy". Whether you are a student or employee, perhaps the most difficult and most stressful aspect of the pandemic has been the uncertainty of it all."

And there's been plenty of uncertainty. 

Before the rise of the Omicron variant in Ontario, McMaster announced that classes would be returning to in-person for the winter 2022 term on Jan. 17 after one week of online classes commencing Jan. 13. Then, on Jan. 5, McMaster announced that in-person labs would resume as previously announced on Jan 17; however, the majority of classes, primarily lectures, would not resume until Feb. 7. 

McMaster University's campus is barren as students prepare to find out whether or not winter will be in-person or online. (Andrew Mrozowski/CBC)

'A term of transition'

The university said in a press release "We recognize that there will be challenges for our community at home and on campus over the next few weeks as the pandemic continues and more people are required to isolate, manage their own health and care for family."

Van Koughnett says the university will do what it can to help students adjust. He says "This will definitely be a term of transition for everyone. As with any transition, some will adjust seamlessly, and others will need more support. Our challenge is to provide support and guidance appropriate for each student's needs. The adaptation back to 'near normalcy' may feel strange and uncertain at first, but I would not be surprised if many students are able to get back in the groove very quickly."

Sarah Arnold, a second-year biomedical and chemical engineering student, hopes that turns out to be true.

"From my personal experience, the faculty at the university has been wonderful with trying to help students with the adjustment and manage hybrid learning," she said. "There are several concerns though with going into the new semester completely in person. It is exciting, but it will be an additional transitional period. I hope they'll provide resources for students who need them, help us with that transition and be understanding that we have been used to an alternative form of course delivery for the past year and a half." 

If you are a university or college student who would like to share their fall 2020 experience, The Silhouette, McMaster University's student-led newspaper, wants to talk to you. Contact Andrew Mrozowski, Editor-in-Chief, at eic@thesil.ca. 

Second-year student Sarah Arnold tells the story of what it's like to be a student in the hybrid learning environment at McMaster University. (Andrew Mrozowski/CBC)


Andrew Mrozowski

Freelance reporter

Andrew Mrozowski is a freelance reporter for the CBC and the Editor-In-Chief of The Sil, the McMaster University campus newspaper.