UTSC psychology professor launches free online course to help deal with COVID-19 anxiety

Steve Joordens’ three-hour Coursera walkthrough recommends structure, social connection, limited news consumption

UTSC psychology professor launches free online course to help deal with COVID-19 anxiety

Dr. Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at UTSC, has launched a free course called Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19 on Coursera, an online learning platform.

The looming feelings of uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in immense anxiety for many people. An April study commissioned by the Angus Reid Institute has found that half of Canadians’ mental health has worsened. 

The course takes less than three hours to complete. In the first part, Joordens talks about controlling the “machinery” behind anxiety. 

Joordens himself reports feeling anxious, but he attests that his knowledge of psychology helps him manage his mental health. During an explanation of the biological basis of anxiety, he emphasizes the idea of two states of being: one caused by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which directs the body’s response to acute stressors, and another linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps the body relax. An overactive sympathetic nervous system can result in excessive feelings of anxiety. 

Since the chronic threat of COVID-19 is inescapable, it’s crucial to manage these two states to avoid spending too much time feeling anxious, which can lead to issues with sleep, emotional regulation, and relationships. Joordens adds that chronic stress can also result in decreased immunity function.

In the second part of the course, he explains how the environment you are in affects your mental health. He suggests that the news can be addictive, just like casino slot machines. 

A lot of times when you watch the news, you’re just hearing stuff you already know,” Joordens said. However, the media shares new, relevant pieces of information every now and then. Since you can’t predict when it’ll come, you might feel that it’s worthwhile to check the news all the time so that you can ‘catch’ that piece of information when it comes out. But forming this addiction-like behaviour can be harmful because the news constantly reminds you of the threat of COVID-19, which activates the sympathetic nervous system, “[re-energizing] your anxious state.” 

He emphasizes that you don’t have to stay on top of the news all the time and recommends designating a couple of specific times to check the news — possibly in the morning and early evening — but not within two hours of going to bed, to avoid activating the feelings of anxiety.

Furthermore, Joordens emphasizes the importance of social connections during this trying time. “What we want to do is physically distance, but socially connect, and restrengthen, reconnect, restrengthen, connect, [and so on],” he said. “Our social world is really important to our ability to cope.” 

When Joordens discusses the effects of prolonged stays indoors on individuals, he draws parallels between them and better-studied phenomena, including solitary confinement in prisons and being socially isolated or ostracized. Both of these can result in social anxiety and depression. “So it’s like snowballs. The longer you allow yourself to be socially isolated, the harder it is to reconnect again,” Joordens adds. 

To manage isolation, he recommends structuring and scheduling your day — including waking up, going to bed, and having meals at roughly the same times every day — eating healthy food, starting your day with a walk or a jog while maintaining the appropriate physical distance from others, and reaching out to your social network.

To “turn off” the anxiety “humming along in the background all the time,” Joordens recommends a technique called guided relaxation, which involves progressively clenching your muscles to the point of pain and then relaxing them. “You can’t be anxious and relaxed at the same time,” he said. In order to easily induce this relaxed state, one must know it really well — thus, frequent practice is crucial. 

Joordens also suggests specific activities and distractions that can tip your brain chemistry in your favour, like singing, dancing, laughing — possibly while watching comedies — and aerobic exercise.

“Canada is beyond guilty”: U of T in solidarity as protests tackle police brutality, anti-Black racism

Student groups call for accountability, action regarding anti-Blackness at the university

“Canada is beyond guilty”: U of T in solidarity as protests tackle police brutality, anti-Black racism

Several U of T leaders and student groups have released statements of solidarity with the university’s Black community, responding to the protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism that have erupted across North America.

The protests address the latest in a long string of deaths in Black communities — particularly in the context of police intervention — in the United States and Canada, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto.

Some student groups have gone further than an expression of solidarity, calling on the university for accountability and action to address anti-Black racism on campus. 

U of T community responses

On May 31, the Black Students’ Association (BSA) released a statement condemning the continuing police brutality that is at the centre of the protests: “Each and every time another black life is taken away, it is the demonstration that not only black lives do not matter, but even worse that the life of a black person is expendable… and devalued.”

The statement also addressed Canada’s own history of anti-Black racism: “Canada is beyond guilty of hiding behind [an] “Egalitarian image” that misleads people to believe that Canada is an inclusive country that has always strived to make room for all people. Except for black people.” It continues, “Anti-Blackness spans here in Canada and across the globe, there’s no debate on that.” 

The BSA encouraged those who have the financial means to support donation funds, including those for the families of George Floyd and Regis-Korchinksi Paquet. For those who do not have the financial means, the BSA called on them to sign ongoing petitions that seek justice for Black people who have been killed. It also provided suggestions for allies, which includes not spreading triggering videos of police violence, and educating one’s self about the issues at hand instead of relying on Black people.

The Black Graduate Students’ Association (BGSA) also released a statement, echoing the BSA’s call for addressing anti-Black racism in Canada. “We are calling for organizations and institutions to do their part by adopting zero-tolerance policies against racism and anti-Blackness,” wrote the BGSA. 

U of T President Meric Gertler released a statement on June 1 in solidarity with U of T’s Black community, condemning anti-Black racism and discrimination. Dean Melanie Woodin of the Faculty of Arts & Science; Vice-President Human Resources & Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat; and Acting Vice-President & Principal at UTM Ian Orchard followed Gertler’s sentiments, offering further resources for community members. Community members were also directed toward upcoming initiatives, such as an event on June 4 by the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office. 

A number of other campus groups also released statements of solidarity, including the Arts and Sciences Students’ Union, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union, the Scarborough Students’ Union, and the Women and Gender Studies Students’ Union. Many of these groups also offered further resources for students and community members. 

The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union’s statement included a pledge to donate $500 to the family of Korchinski-Paquet as they continue to seek justice.

Calls for accountability, action

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) made several demands to the university in a statement put out in solidarity and collaboration with the BSA. The UTSU called on campus police to issue an apology to students due to their “historically unjust behaviour” toward marginalized students, and ensure that those students “are not faced with further intimidation and disenfranchisement on campus.” 

In addition, the UTSU called for more mental health services for Black and Indigenous students, and the hiring and welcoming of Black individuals to U of T in order to rectify a lack of representation within students and faculty. 

A U of T spokesperson confirmed that the university is aware of the UTSU’s demands, and wrote that they “look forward to discussing these further with UTSU.” They also pointed to an article in U of T News, where it is reported that 14 Black faculty members have been hired by the university in the past year.

Meanwhile, in an open letter to the dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH), hundreds of students and community groups called for the DLSPH to denounce police violence and anti-Black racism and to describe how they will commit to addressing these issues as public health crises. They also called for the DLSPH to elucidate the connection between police violence and negative health effects.

In response, Dean Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown released a statement emphasizing the impact of anti-Black racism on health, both in the short-term through police violence and in the long-term through an impact on stress, mental health, and other aspects. 

This is the result of [a] decades-long failure to build equity and inclusion and to address the underlying social determinants of health,” Brown said. He also pledged to search for concrete ways of addressing anti-Black racism and oppression in the school. 

Trinity College released a brief statement on Instagram expressing solidarity with Black community members. This was met with backlash due to student experiences of racism and marginalization at the institution, especially in relation to the college’s secret society, Episkopon

Trinity College officials released a new statement in response to the criticism, acknowledging the “deep issues that manifest themselves in many different ways in our own lives, communities and institutions, including Trinity College,” and asking for student comments and input.

After numerous Trinity College students came forward this week with their experiences of racism, a member of Episkopon’s women’s branch announced that they would be disbanding the branch effective immediately and apologized for their involvement in the society. 

Continent-wide protests, demands to defund the police 

On May 30, thousands of protesters marched through Toronto to demand justice for Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Black woman who died after falling off the balcony of an apartment during an encounter with police. Korchinski-Paquet’s mother has expressed suspicion regarding the circumstances of her daughter’s death, and she has asked for more answers from the police. 

The Toronto protest also encompassed the greater demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, such as greater police accountability and an end to police violence against Black people. According to a 2018 Ontario Human Rights Commission report, Black people are 20 times more likely to be fatally shot by Toronto police compared to white people. 

Toronto Mayor John Tory asked for the Special Investigations Unit — a civilian law enforcement agency that is independent of the police — to expedite its investigation of Korchinski-Paquet’s death. Tory tweeted that the investigation “must include frequent public updates.”

The Toronto protest echoed and stood in solidarity with those protests that erupted in cities across the US, following the death of a 46-year old Minneapolis man named George Floyd on May 25. Floyd was approached in response to a report of a counterfeit $20 bill, and died after an interaction with four police officers, in which one of them kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. During that time, Floyd repeatedly told the officers that he couldn’t breath and eventually became unresponsive.

Two autopsies conducted on Floyd determined that his death was a homicide. The officer in the video with his knee on Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder, and the other three officers have been charged with aiding and abetting. 

Many of these deaths have sparked a demand for police officers to wear body cameras. In Toronto, Police Chief Mark Saunders said he would expedite the rollout of body cameras — which Toronto police currently do not wear — in response to Korchinski-Paquet’s death. Some advocates go further and support “defunding the police,” arguing that funding ought to be reallocated to social services that can better handle situations that require intervention.

The protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism in North America have since been followed by solidarity marches around the world.

Editor’s Note (June 5, 5:12 pm): This article has been updated to include a statement from the Black Graduate Students’ Association.

Editor’s Note (June 5, 7:21 pm): This article has been updated to include comment from U of T.