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With U of T gone digital, how have mental health supports fared?

Students discuss about phone therapy, privacy with online wellness resources
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JOSEPH DONATO/THE VARSITY
JOSEPH DONATO/THE VARSITY

COVID-19 has taken a toll on mental health worldwide. As people stay indoors and limit their social exposure, many report feeling the emotional strain of physical distancing. 

A recent poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute showed that 50 per cent of surveyed Canadians experienced declining mental health during the pandemic, with stress and anxiety as the most common issues. Another poll by the Canadian Mental Health Association found that seven out of 10 Ontarians think a “serious mental health crisis” will follow the pandemic. 

The burdens that students carry are foregrounded by the perils of an unstable workforce, high rent costs, and a heavy workload. Without accessible mental health support at the university level, the mental health of students will suffer. 

At a time when students are meant to experience milestones such as graduation and job hunting, most of us are trying to stay afloat as we face challenges that perpetually put our physical and mental health at risk. The huge student body at U of T has a heightened demand for mental health services and resources in the stressful environment of COVID-19. 

U of T has offered a wide array of mental health resources during this pandemic through the health centres on its campuses. These resources include access to the My Student Support Program (My SSP) app that predated the pandemic and the introduction of Navi, an app that can connect users to different mental health resources at U of T or beyond the university.

Newer developments this year include an online mental health support forum for students to share their experiences, which the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is partnered with and monitors, delivering advice to students on a case-by-case basis. Students can access this forum with their U of T email, and they are given the opportunity to use an anonymous username.

As U of T’s mental health supports have transitioned to fully online platforms, The Varsity interviewed two students to ask them what they thought about the efficacy of some of U of T’s online mental health resources, as well as the Mental Health Policy Council (MHPC) on the role of student mental health advocacy during a pandemic. 

Looking at U of T’s health and wellness centres

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, health and wellness centres at U of T’s three campuses have moved from in-person to virtual sessions, with services including counselling, psychotherapy, and various mental health assessments. 

The confluence of academic disruption, financial constraints, and isolation hitting students this year reinforces the urgent need for accessible online mental health care that is free of excessively long wait times and accommodates the unique needs of all students.

The question of wait times for U of T’s online mental health resources sessions during COVID-19 remains paramount. Today, time is an important commodity that few of us can afford to lose as we juggle our online courses, jobs, and time spent with families and friends. 

Over the past few years, student groups at UTSG have conspicuously advocated for shorter wait times at the Health & Wellness Centre, which often felt neverending to students struggling with their mental health. In the Report of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Mental Health in December 2019, one of the recommendations was timely mental health care and same-day appointments for students. 

The recommendation underscores the frustration of students who have been unable to access mental health care for weeks, and sometimes months at a time. 

Another issue that has arisen is with U of T’s transition to virtual mental health supports. To understand this better, The Varsity interviewed Riley*, a fourth-year student double majoring in neuroscience and molecular biology. They wrote about their experiences both with in-person therapy and online therapy at UTSG’s Health & Wellness Centre. 

Riley was one of many who made the shift to online therapy when the pandemic hit, and they experienced issues with online therapy during the early days of the pandemic as U of T transitioned to these online platforms. 

For in-person sessions in early February, Riley wrote, “I barely had any wait time because I learned through the registrar to ask directly for my college’s therapist.” It was only about a month later, when U of T transitioned all sessions to an online or telephone format, that they had to transfer to another therapist and experienced challenges with getting timely appointments. 

Riley was informed that their sessions would take place on the phone as the centre tested different virtual platforms. They referred to that week of transition as being very hectic for them because no one “knew what was happening.” 

“I was told that my regular appointment [would] still be happening over the phone, but it didn’t happen because it was the first week,” they wrote.

Riley expressed that their issues mainly stemmed from the training that their new therapist had to undergo.

“If I didnt [sic] have a therapist in training, I would think I would’ve continued over the phone like normal. And that people who kept their therapist wouldve [sic] just continued like normal over the phone,” Riley wrote. 

However, since moving back home with their family, they have decided to temporarily stop therapy sessions. Riley also expressed that they would have preferred if the sessions were held over video. “I really disliked [therapy] over the phone,” they wrote. “It was much harder to communicate for me.”

Today, the Health & Wellness Centre offers both phone calls and video conferencing sessions at the student’s discretion.

Evaluating the My SSP app

U of T also provides students with mental health resources in the form of apps such as the My SSP for timely virtual support. My SSP is a mobile app and call-in service for student support that can be accessed 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Counsellors on the app are trained to help students with issues touching on academic, social, and mental health concerns. Its most notable features include the chat function that is available in over 146 languages and immediate phone support that is available in approximately 35 languages. For international students, this feature is key in accessing adequate mental health care. 

My SSP has received some mixed responses from students over the past year since its launch, with some calling it helpful and others claiming concerns about privacy and wait times. Given that the fate of the pandemic is still uncertain, we have to start considering the longevity of online therapy, and how it can be improved over time. 

To get a sense of where mental health goals should be in the next year, The Varsity interviewed members from the MHPC, a notable student mental health advocacy group on campus. They noted how those who have service jobs and low incomes — which includes many students — must also cope with elevated stressors and transmission risks on top of academic work. 

When MHPC members reached out to a few students to survey their experiences with the app, it appeared to them that student engagement with My SSP had been limited, and that there were issues with the app’s mandate to provide timely support in a variety of languages. 

“We had trouble finding any students that had made use of mySSP and received worrying reports from students who have been unable to access support in a timely and linguistically-sensitive manner in spite of mySSP’s mandate,” they wrote.

MHPC members also claimed to have heard from students who “haven’t been able to access a non-English-speaking counsellor during reasonable hours.” 

They argued that while apps like these are a useful part of U of T’s toolkit and an important step toward addressing the student mental health crisis, “an app isn’t going to address the most serious ways in which we have failed and are continuing to fail our most vulnerable community members.”

Instead, they made calls for U of T to release data on student mental health, requesting that reporting mechanisms be put into in place to monitor situations like the number of students who were on waitlists for mental health support, how many have not continued to access U of T’s mental health resources, and those who have died due to mental illness on and off of all U of T campuses. 

“No public health crisis of any kind can be effectively addressed without widespread availability of data like this,” MHPC members wrote.

Outsourcing to private mental health care 

A further option for U of T students to access mental health supports includes booking appointments with private practices outside of the university. Many students are eligible to receive coverage through the university’s plans, including that of the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s Health and Dental Plan, which covers students for 15 sessions worth up to $100 each with private mental health practitioners. 

The Varsity interviewed Marium Vahed, a fourth-year student studying diaspora and transnational studies and anthropology. When asked why she chose to outsource to a private therapist, she wrote, “I am privileged to have a father who works in the mental health profession and was able to connect me to a therapist that he trusts. I chose my therapist because it meant no wait time, a high quality of service, and because they were a good fit for my personality.” 

Shedding light on her experiences with phone therapy, she found that the transition was not as bad because she had a longer relationship with her therapist and had already developed trust through their previous face-to-face sessions.

Although Vahed found that online therapy has not drastically changed her life, when asked about the issues she encountered as a result of phone therapy opposed to in-person therapy, she noted that she was more likely to be distracted over the phone and more aware of the lack of privacy.

“Whereas when I attended in-person sessions I would have put my phone away, I now require my phone to speak to my therapist and at moments can’t help but notice my notifications,” Vahed wrote. “Sometimes, this makes it harder to focus on the session because I am constantly being reminded of the other things I could be doing with the time, like completing schoolwork and responding to my emails.”

The fear of confidentiality was also an important tenant to Vahed’s therapy experience. “The main drawback to phone therapy for me is that I am more cautious about what I say out of fear that my family might accidentally overhear me,” she wrote. “With COVID-19, everyone is working and learning from home, and there is always the chance that someone walks past my room or enters my room during a therapy session.” 

“This fear of a privacy breach is a barrier for me to engage fully with my therapist in the same way I would have in person.”

What is U of T’s response?

When The Varsity reached out to U of T for comment on its transition to online mental health support during COVID-19, the university emphasized its prioritization.

The mental and physical well-being of our students is a top priority; we understand that the pandemic brings additional challenges, especially around loneliness and isolation,” Micah Stickel, acting Vice-Provost Students, wrote to The Varsity. “We want our students to succeed and to thrive — both academically and personally.” 

When asked about the need for mental health resources during the pandemic for both domestic and international students, Stickel outlined the importance of online services, such as counselling at all three campuses and the My SSP app. 

Stickel also pointed to the discussion forum monitored by social workers that the university launched in March through a partnership with the CAMH. The forum was created to provide students with necessary support when struggling with mental health issues during the pandemic. 

Stickel wrote that the partnership between the CAMH and U of T aims to “review and improve mental health services for students, including better pathways to care for students.” He also commented that the CAMH is helping redesign U of T’s mental health support process to inform “the new care model for U of T.” 

Overall, as many students experience mental health struggles and overwhelming feelings of loneliness and isolation, including the lack of a physical community on campus, mental health needs to be prioritized as an important tenet of student care during this very vulnerable time.

As all of university life has pivoted virtually, U of T’s transition to fully and effectively providing online mental health resources still very much remains a work in progress.

*Name changed out of privacy concerns.=