Eduvation Blog

On their Phone, In their Room, Alone: Mental Health in a Pandemic


Good morning,

TGIF! – and happy Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, to those who observe it!

Something seems to be in the air, besides the coronavirus… First, we had premiers in NB and BC trigger early elections, almost like they wanted out of their jobs or something. (I jest.) A month into the Fall term, “dozens” of US college presidents are now announcing their retirements – although many insist they aren’t leaving because of the pandemic, but merely delayed their announcements from the spring. (A 2017 study found that >10% of US college presidents were 71 years of age or more, and more than half planned to retire within 5 years.)

Senior CdnPSE administrators have been engaged in an active game of musical chairs this year, especially in the West. And I’ve heard from a hundred or so subscribers this year who are leaving their positions, often because jobs or entire departments are being eliminated due to budget cuts. In a town hall this week, uAlberta warned that they will be cutting 325 more positions by the end of this fiscal year, on top of 400 already cut – and expect to cut another 325 next year (for a total of 1,100).

Around the world, the combination of closed borders and government budget cuts is fuelling similar disruptions. uMelbourne researchers report that Australia’s public universities have lost $3.8B in revenue this year because of the pandemic, eliminating 5,600 FT and 17,500 PT/casual positions, or “9.5% of Australia’s entire higher education workforce.”

Whether you’re anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop, or stressed out trying to do the work of 3 people, this is going to be an important year for mental health (MH) and wellness initiatives, not just for students but for all of us.

Today, we’ll look at some more aspects of MH in a pandemic, but first…


Great Minds in the Gutter

Yesterday I shared uGuelph’s announcement that they will be monitoring campus sewage from 5 residence halls for COVID19, 3x a week. Since then, several announcements about wastewater-based epidemiology have come out…

Fleming College researchers are collaborating with QuantWave Technologies to investigate the capability of their intelligent sensing system to provide COVID19 early warnings in wastewater treatment plants.  Fleming College

Queen’s U researchers are establishing a local Sewage Sentinel Surveillance group, to develop capacity to detect the coronavirus in sewage and septic samples. The pilot project is at the Beaty Water Research Centre.  ENC

Demand for sewage autosamplers has surged about 50% in the US since the CDC started working on a unified National Wastewater Surveillance Network in July, and some universities and municipalities are waiting months for back-ordered equipment.  Quartz


Cases on Campus

8 new cases since yesterday…

Durham College seems to have reported 2 new confirmed student cases yesterday. 1 was an off-campus online student, while the other was on campus for a class on Sep 30. (Total now 7, I believe).  DC (off-campus)  |  DC (on-campus)

uCalgary reports that an elevator contractor has tested positive, and was on-campus in 8 buildings while infectious.  uCalgary

George Brown College reports 1 case who was recently on the St James campus.  GBC

McMaster U reports 1 student case, who spent time in the Psyc Bldg on Sep 24. (Total now 3).  Hamilton Spectator

uOttawa health sci student Kate Brown has tested positive for COVID19, but reports that more than a week later she is still waiting to hear from OPH contact tracers.  CBC

Queen’s U reports 1 more student case, after a large indoor party in the University District that has now been linked to 5 cases, and 60 contacts who are being monitored. (Total cases at Queen’s now 15 since Sep 7). The party attracted >40 people, one day before Ontario reduced the limit from 50 to 10.  Kingston Whig-Standard

Wilfrid Laurier U reports that a 5th student, who lives off-campus but attends the Waterloo campus, has tested positive. (Total now 5.)  Global


Winter 2021

As of today, at least 51 out of 99 CdnPSEs on my list have announced their plans for the Winter 2021 term. (Spoiler: pretty much all of them are blended or primarily remote). Since yesterday…

BCIT announced that “we will maintain the status quo” for the Winter term: predominantly remote instruction, with blended delivery where necessary. BCIT

Kwantlen Polytechnic U announced its “intention” to continue for the Spring semester with remote delivery, and essential F2F instructional activities. (F2F components were offered in 4% of courses this Fall).  KPU

NAIT announced that classes will continue to be delivered virtually, with some in-person shops/labs, throughout the Winter 2021 term.  NAIT

Niagara College will continue with remote/hybrid delivery for the Winter 2021 term. “The majority of programs will mix remote delivery with limited on-campus classes/labs.”  NC

St Lawrence College will continue with “mixed-delivery” programs into the Winter 2021 semester. Applied and Health Sci programs will be priorities for limited F2F labs.  Kingston Whig-Standard

Trent U announced that it will continue its “multi-access” model in the Winter 2021 term, but will “increase the number of in-person courses” because the Fall term has proven successful. More sections of a 20-student seminar on Critical Engagement are one example.  Trent


Beyond our Control

Whether it’s a pandemic lockdown, roller-coaster economy, precarious employment or interpersonal stresses, COVID19 has dramatically reminded us how little of life is actually within our control…

A Worried Generation

Worldwide, 15-24-year-olds worry more about the impacts of COVID19 on their mental health, employment prospects and education than anything else – and 5x more than they worry about their own physical health. (They’re not entirely wrong: the World Bank estimates that the pandemic could cost this generation $10 trillion in lost income over their lifetimes.) In poorer countries, youth are concerned about jobs and disposable income, while OECD youth worry as much about their relationships with friends and family. “Generation COVID” is also expressing determination to use this crisis to bring about social and environmental change.  World Economic Forum

Anxious Albertans & Youth

A late-March survey of 8,267 Albertans who subscribed to Text4Hope (a daily MH affirmation) found surprisingly high indicators of obsessive behaviour, stress and depression. The intention was to collect baseline data at the beginning of the pandemic, but researchers “did not expect people to be experiencing this level of anxiety, depression or stress.” 60% of respondents had become worried about dirt, germs and viruses; 54% had begun washing their hands compulsively, 50% were probable candidates for anxiety disorders and 40% to be clinically depressed. 85% of respondents reported moderate to high stress, and all these issues were more prevalent among those under age 25. Environmental Research & Public Health

Mourning a Loss of Control

A July-August survey of 2,007 adults found that 56% of younger Americans (aged 18-34) have sometimes felt isolated in the past month, and 67% like they were unable to control the important things in life, compared to fewer older respondents (40% and 50% respectively). In a uChicago study, 25% of youth rate their mental health as fair/poor, compared to 13% of older adults. Students are mourning the loss of graduation and commencement ceremonies, proms and parties, but twentysomethings are postponing weddings and missing out on baby showers and housewarmings too. Those who depend on gym workouts to deal with stress need to find alternatives. Younger Americans show higher rates of psychosomatic symptoms like trouble sleeping, headaches and mood swings. A two-year lockdown feels like forever to young people, who lack the historical context of previous polio or flu epidemics.  680 News

Rising MH Concerns in Canada

Alex Usher summarizes some key findings in the Canadian version of the NCHA, conducted in 2013 and 2019. The good news is that consumption of alcohol and cigarettes dropped. (Marijuana use rose, presumably due to legalization.) MH indicators are where the trends look worrisome: feelings of overwhelming anger, frustration, depression, sadness, loneliness and hopelessness all rose 5-10% over those 6 years. Students reporting MH diagnoses or treatments pretty much doubled, and self-harm or suicide attempts also rose. Reports of non-consensual touching also doubled, and non-consensual penetration tripled. Usher observes that self-reporting is subjective, stigma and definitions evolve over time, which makes it difficult to interpret longitudinal trends in these kinds of surveys.  HESA


Isolation vs Infection?

Social distancing has intensified feelings of isolation and loneliness for many people – although surprisingly, not who you think – and obviously undergrads are compelled to seek out social situations even when they understand the health risks…

Older Adults Twice as Lonely

The uMichigan National Poll on Health Aging surveyed 2,074 Americans in June, aged 50-80, and found increases in reported lack of companionship (41%, up from 34% in 2018), social isolation (56%, up from 27%), and infrequent social contact (46%, up from 28%). Many used technology on a weekly basis to stay connected, including social media (59%) and video chat (31%) – but those who did so actually were more likely to say they felt isolated. Those who exercised, got outdoors or interacted with nature were less likely to feel lonely. (About 80% reported they were eating healthy and getting enough sleep, unchanged from 2018). 72% of those reporting fair or poor MH felt isolated, compared to 55% of those reporting better MH. “Providing safe opportunities for regular and meaningful interaction with others and with nature is important to reduce loneliness and maintain social connections.”  NPHA

When Isolation is Nothing New

A recent longitudinal study of 773 university students in Toronto found that COVID19 social isolation has caused psychological distress, as you might expect – but the problem is consistently and significantly greater for students without pre-existing MH concerns. In fact, among those with prior concerns, levels of stress, sadness, depressive symptoms, and anxiety either were unchanged or even improved under the pandemic. “In effect, by being isolated pre-COVID, those with prior MH difficulties were well positioned to weather COVID19!” Many students reported more time for sleep, and less challenge juggling competing demands. (The CESB was announced in late April, which may also have relieved some financial stresses.) The study authors encourage universities to maintain existing MH supports, but also to prioritize early intervention and prevention programming for students facing increased isolation.  Canadian Psychology

Fearing Isolation more than COVID

“There is a simmering tension between young people’s desire to gather socially, and the growing threat from the coronavirus.” As PHOs plead with youth to limit social contact, cases among teens and twentysomethings rise. It’s not always that teens are reckless about COVID19, but they fear social isolation more: “A lot of people are calling attention to coronavirus because it’s right in front of us, but at the same time, teens’ depression rate — it’s a silent threat.” Facetime or Zoom calls can’t quite replace a calming hug.  NPR


Making it Worse

In fact, many psychologists believe that the internet poses a major MH challenge…

Smartphones Ruin a Generation

Since the 1930s, generational differences in attitudes and behaviours appeared gradually, “like modest hills and valleys,” writes psychologist Jean Twenge, but around 2012 those shifts became “steep mountains and sheer cliffs” – just as smartphone ownership surpassed 50% of Americans. Within 5 years, three-quarters of US teens owned an iPhone, and teen loneliness spiked in 2013 and has stayed high. Gen Z (which Twenge prefers to call iGen) has been shaped by the smartphone and social media, from shortened attention spans to the nature of social interactions and mental health. Rates of teen suicide and depression have skyrocketed since 2011, and at the same time the allure of independence, driving, working, dating and sexual activity have all declined sharply. (85% of Boomers and Gen Xers were dating as high school seniors, compared to only 56% of Gen Z in 2015.) Today’s teens have more leisure time, because they study less and work less, but they spend that time “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.” They go to sleep on their phones, and wake up to their phones, cutting into their sleep significantly. And time spent on all screen activities is correlated with lower levels of happiness, while the opposite is true of in-person interactions. Social media has hit girls particularly hard, from cyberbullying to FOMO, tripling their suicide rates. “Significant effects on both mental health and sleep time appear after two or more hours a day on electronic devices. The average teen spends about two and a half.”  The Atlantic

“The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.” Jean Twenge, Prof of Psychology, San Diego State U


“Just the information overload that’s unavoidable on social media platforms can be distracting.”Wayne Evans, Freshman, North Carolina State U



At the risk of repeating myself, I hope you’ll take ten at some point today and listen as Benoit-Antoine Bacon, president at Carleton, shares some hard-won wisdom based on his own life experiences, and his genuine compassion for staff and students struggling with their mental health. “You don’t have to be bound by your past… The journey of healing is always continuing, it’s never ever done.”  Ten with Ken

“I thought it was important to lead from a position of honesty… Talking openly and honestly about mental health issues, their symptoms and their causes, is the first step towards addressing them, both as an individual and as society.”Benoit-Antoine Bacon, President, Carleton U


“The world is both beautiful AND dangerous… We have more control than we think about whether the world is perceived as beautiful or dangerous.” Benoit-Antoine Bacon, President, Carleton U

Remember to take some time this weekend, and every day, for self-care.  Stay safe, be well, and have a restful weekend!


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