Scholar Psychological Well being | “The pandemic has turned every part the wrong way up”

Requests for psychological support have skyrocketed at universities during the pandemic. While their numbers are trending down, students asking for help remain in greater numbers than before COVID-19. And fear is one of the main reasons for counseling.

“There were weeks when I just cried. I cried every time I went to my computer,” Valérie Bessette recalls.

Before the pandemic, the PhD student in geography at Laval University was doing well. His fear was under control. His morale was good.

“The pandemic has turned everything upside down,” says the student. His problems came back with a vengeance. On the recommendation of her family doctor, she put her studies on hold for several months.

The young woman returned to university this fall, still weakened by the pandemic. “I’m doing better, but I don’t feel quite the same as I used to,” says the student.

And she’s far from the only student whose mental health has taken a hit during the pandemic.

At the University of Montreal, requests for psychological support have nearly doubled in three years, increasing from 1,250 requests in 2019 to 2,340 requests in 2022. About 75% of them had fear or symptoms as the main reason for counseling. around 55 % before the pandemic.

The institution recently changed the way it receives requests for help, which could partially explain the sharp increase, Nuance Virginie Allard-Cameus, director of the Center for Health and Psychological Counseling of Student Life Services.

But the students’ plight is very real, she observes. And it’s even on the rise.

Last winter, his team received 149 requests classified as “very urgent,” meaning students who need immediate treatment, sometimes even hospitalization. “That’s a lot. These are not numbers that we had before,” she emphasizes.

29% jump up in fear

During the pandemic, “students managed all the usual stresses of a university student, but also all the other stressors related to COVID-19,” explains Lina Di Genova, director of strategy and assessment for student services at McGill University, who recently published a report on mental health Health on campus co-authored.

The study gathered insights from student affairs officials on student mental health at nearly 70 universities across the country.

your impressions? They reported a 29% increase in student anxiety since 2018. And a 14% increase in learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder.

Between 2020 and 2021, these professionals also noted high rates of pandemic-related fatigue among college students, “associated with anxiety, social isolation, financial stress and a [scolaire] elevated”.

Slight drop in demand

However, the demand for psychological help is beginning to decline. “We’re still feeling the effects of the pandemic wave, but we’re seeing it fading,” observes Louise Careau, director of the Student Aid Center at Laval University.

Last year, his team processed 3,064 requests for help, around “a third more” than in 2019. The number of requests has risen to 981 since July.

The University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) is also observing “a slight decrease” in demand this quarter, following an increase over the past two years.

Loss of motivation, fears, difficulty concentrating: Despite the return to face-to-face classes, many students are still affected by the upheaval caused by the pandemic.

Linda used to have panic attacks in high school, but never to this degree. Never to the point of shortness of breath and sharp chest pains.

“In a crisis, I have already left exams without writing anything on the paper,” admits the law student at UQAM, who does not wish to be given her full name. And the young woman has been “even more stressed” since her return to campus.

“I’m not the only one having seizures. I don’t know anyone around me who doesn’t,” says Linda.

“Only a few students named the pandemic as the main reason for the consultation. However, many reported that the context of the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing problems. The stigma associated with asking for help also appears to be diminishing, leaving students more empowered than before to seek services,” notes Bruno Collard, director of the Department of Psychology and Counseling at the University of Sherbrooke.

In his office, requests for ad hoc consultations have increased by 42% in the last three years. Inquiries for psychotherapy (typically spanning eight sessions) have increased by 27%. In both cases, “historic highs were reached last year”.

“I always had mild symptoms of anxiety and depression, but things got worse. I had a lot of trouble being functional,” says Claudine, who declined to give her last name.

At the start of the pandemic, the food science and technology student at Laval University could not help but drop out of two courses.

She could stand for hours in front of math problems “that you learn in elementary school”, unable to solve them, or panicked out of class in the middle of class. Today the student is better, but the fear never went away.

“I have to be very careful to keep this balance. I’m never far from worrying,” she notes.

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