Student survey sheds light on mental health issues at UPEI

A survey of students at UPEI paints a sobering picture of the toll the pandemic has taken on their mental health and academic challenges. And the university says it was a factor in deciding to lengthen the Christmas break by a week.

Academic, financial and emotional challenges cited by respondents to voluntary survey

The survey of more than 1,000 students was sent out between Nov. 2 and Nov. 9. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

A survey of students at UPEI paints a sobering picture of the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on their mental health and academic progress.

Nearly two-thirds of the students who replied to the voluntary survey reported struggling more with mental health issues and 11 per cent said they have had thoughts related to suicide.

"The results were pretty concerning," said Kali Ross, mental health and wellness officer for the UPEI Student Union. "It's really evident that students are struggling."

In all, 1,131 students responded to the survey, conducted by the student union from Nov. 2 to Nov. 9. (The student body numbered almost 5,000 in the fall of 2019, according to the university's website, with international students making up 29 per cent of that number.) 

Though 63 per cent of students who answered said they're struggling more with mental health issues, just 13.7 per cent had used on-campus supports. Many reported they didn't know where or how to access those services.

Kali Ross, mental health and wellness officer for the student union, says they are recommending better access to mental health counselling for students. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Students at the Atlantic Veterinary College reported an additional barrier to accessing mental health services, saying counselling services were not available outside their set daily academic schedule of 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 

The survey found students across the UPEI campus saying they are struggling with heavier course loads, rising costs and fears of lower academic success because of the switch to online learning during the pandemic.

"It's harder to communicate with your peers and your professors in an online class," said student union vice-president Malak Nassar.

"You're missing that participation piece."

Unexpected costs for online classes

Nassar said students are paying more for online data services in their homes, and some are even having to buy new tablets and laptops to keep up with the technical requirements of online learning. In shared student houses, the Wi-Fi capacity simply isn't up to the job of accommodating multiple stay-at-home students.

Some online lectures run up to three hours long. That's OK in a classroom setting where interaction is possible. In front of a screen, it can take a toll on your ability to concentrate — and on your mental health.

"You're not interacting with your peers in class, so shorter attention spans are a thing when it's online school," said Nassar.

Student union vice-president Malak Nassar says students faced challenges with focus during long online lectures. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

The survey found the pandemic has been especially hard for at-risk populations within the student community.

International students reported a higher rate of sexual and gender-based violence (2 per cent) compared to students from P.E.I. (0.4 per cent) and other Canadian classmates (0 per cent).

The international students also reported more financial stressors. 

"They weren't eligible for a lot of the financial support domestic students were eligible for during the pandemic," said Ross. "They don't have adequate supports."

A majority of students who replied to the survey, nearly 60 per cent, did report that "profs are approachable and flexible" when students come to them with issues, according to Nassar.

Recommendations for students

The student union is making several recommendations, including better access to a broad array of mental health counselling. Student leaders are also calling for improvements to online materials, including clearer course outlines and shorter, more concise online lectures.

Results of the survey were presented at a meeting of the UPEI Senate last week.

"Faculty and staff will continue to work alongside the student union to support our students during this difficult and unprecedented time," said UPEI president Abd-El-Aziz in a statement emailed to CBC News.

Christmas break made longer

In another development at UPEI, students have been told there will be a one-week delay in the start of the winter semester, with the university citing "the health and wellness of students and their overall well-being" amid restrictions resulting from the pandemic.

Students in most programs will now head back to online learning on Jan. 11.

Nassar said the administration has listened to the student union's concerns about the increased pressure due to COVID-19 changes.

"It's a little gesture that goes a long way for students, when you know that your student union and your university came together to make a decision that is going to make things a little bit easier for you, keeping you in mind. I think it goes a long way for our students."

There will be no delay at the Atlantic Veterinary College, but students will be back to work on Jan. 4. To give vet students more time at home, many of them will do classes online for the first two weeks. 

More from CBC P.E.I.


Brian Higgins


Brian Higgins joined CBC Prince Edward Island in 2002, following work in broadcasting, newspaper and magazine writing in central Canada. He follows law courts and justice issues on P.E.I., among other assignments.


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