“All of us need a little bit of humanity as we go through this together,” said UTSC psychology professor Steve Joordens in reference to the unique challenges we have faced this year. 

Joordens has increasingly become the academic whom news publications flock to when seeking an expert opinion on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health. The Varsity sat down with Joordens to discuss how students and professors alike have been grappling with the obstacles that the pandemic has presented, and the support U of T has provided in response.

The kids aren’t alright

Students have been voicing their concerns regarding the difficulty of learning in an online environment during the past few months. For some, this has been exacerbated by the recent shift to online-only learning at UTSC and the end of hybrid course delivery within the Faculty of Arts & Science on October 10.

As a psychologist and as a professor who teaches a large introductory course, Joordens identified the issue of learning under our current circumstances as being threefold. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, being physically distant from others can increase levels of anxiety. Joordens explained that experiencing anxiety diverts blood away from the brain’s frontal lobes, thereby making it difficult to think deeply. 

“It’s a harder situation to learn in; it takes more effort to concentrate on things and to focus.”

On top of already not being in an optimal state to learn, Joordens acknowledged that “controlling” oneself in an online learning environment is harder than participating in an in-person class.

He noted that, before the pandemic, students just had to make sure they showed up to their classes and they would generally absorb information. “Now you can be pulled away so easily,” Joordens said in reference to the numerous distractions students face when learning from home. 

“And so we have students with compromised frontal lobes and a higher demand on their frontal lobes that inhibit certain behaviours that pull them away from learning… now we’ll add to that a third factor,” Joordens chuckled.

As someone who works to develop online learning technologies, Joordens hasn’t been impressed with some of the early attempts to transition courses online. “Students are being confronted with courses that are literally under development, in construction.”

He stressed that, as of now, online lecture material isn’t as engaging as it could be for students.

“Some lecturers are, for example, still giving a one or two hour lecture as a long video.” However, Joordens predicts that the quality of online learning will rise a few years from now as professors develop their delivery strategies. 

And neither are the adults

Joordens’ analogy for pandemic-era professors is that they are experiencing a kind of “forced migration.”

Joordens commented that, in populations that are forced out of their normal environment, “they will, in fact, take a lot of their previous culture with them and try to transplant their previous culture into this new land.” Likewise, professors who teach in traditional lecture settings are having difficulties adapting their course delivery to this new medium.

Joordens, who comes from a background in educational technologies, spoke on trying to inculture faculty members into the digital realm and encourage them to embrace the opportunities that online learning presents — while acknowledging that professors will have to engage in “retooling and relearning” to be successful on these new platforms.

“I think that’s our great challenge, is to manage that inculturation in a way that ultimately benefits our students the most.”

Joordens stressed the fact that most professors do not have formal training in education. Similar to how students have struggled with the transition to online learning, professors are juggling other commitments to their families and careers, all while having to learn these new approaches to education. 

On top of that, professors are experiencing their own difficulties with social isolation. “I think a lot of us feel like islands,” Joordens lamented. “I do my day’s work… I never leave my house, and I very seldom speak to a colleague.”

Joordens expressed that he feels that his work has become more challenging and requires more time and thought than it previously did. However, personally, he’s found that the more time he devotes to thinking critically about improving his courses, the less time he has to worry about anxieties related to COVID-19. He also plays the video game Rock Band 3 with his wife to relieve stress.

In general, Joordens has been happy with the university’s support for faculty members at this time. He commented that the Centre for Teaching and Learning at UTSC, for instance, has scaled up its programming for lecturers and that communities have risen in order to share tips and techniques among professors who teach courses with similar formats.

Assessing U of T’s mental health response

In 2019, U of T launched the My Student Support Program (My SSP), and this past March, the university partnered with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to launch a discussion forum. My SSP — a 24-hour service for receiving mental health support through texting and calling — expanded its access to all students this year. 

However, students have voiced concerns that U of T isn’t doing enough to invest in counselling services, and that these recent initiatives cannot substitute long-term professional mental health support.

Joordens posited that “there may be a bit of a triage mentality right now,” where the university is focusing on giving immediate support to the people experiencing the acute mental health problems that he says are characteristic of pandemic-related stressors. 

He went on to explain that in instances of depression, long-term care is critical in order to address health needs because people “believe this is how life will be forever.” However, when it comes to the pandemic, Joordens claimed that “we all know in the back of our minds that it’s going to get better.”

“I think for a lot of us the sort of sadness and malaise and ‘blah’ that we feel right now — we may need support right now to get through this [but] I’m not sure everybody will need long-term support.”