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How U of T is adjusting to the impact of COVID-19 on mental health

Accommodation requests have increased dramatically in recent years
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CELENE CZARNOTA/THE VARSITY
CELENE CZARNOTA/THE VARSITY

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered many aspects of students’ lives, from socialization to course delivery. As students face additional stressors from the pandemic, accommodations that students need for mental health concerns have also changed. 

Additionally, U of T has seen an unrelated increase in registrations with accessibility services in recent years, especially for students with mental health as their primary disability.

Response to COVID-19

The university has been working to address these concerns by revamping student programming and redesigning accommodations for the online space. The university continues to provide virtual accommodations for students, though campus testing centres are still open for students who may require in-person support due to disability. 

As it may be increasingly difficult to obtain medical documents during the pandemic, the university is offering “interim accommodations” for students who are unable to obtain documentation right away. 

A U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that students with other types of disabilities, such as head injuries, and those with sensory-related disabilities, such as hearing and vision impairments, have had particular difficulty with moving to virtual learning. 

U of T has encouraged professors to employ more inclusive teaching practices, such as reading text aloud during lectures and providing descriptions of images they use. The spokesperson noted a few other initiatives, including encouraging professors to record live lectures and content, asking speakers to identify themselves by name before responding, and discouraging professors from asking students to speak without warning. 

The university spokesperson noted a one third decrease in requests for volunteer note takers this year, likely due to lectures being recorded. 

In general, U of T has seen a huge increase in requests for mental health accommodations, as an October article from The Varsity outlined how the Deaf community is being accommodated and found that some have increasing difficulty communicating on a day-to-day basis due to the use of face masks. On the other hand, students with other disabilities, such as mobility concerns, have benefitted from learning virtually. They reported that such students have often needed less assistance when learning virtually.

Yearly trends

U of T continues to see yearly increases in the amount of students registered with accessibility services, and a greater proportion of those students are registered with mental health as their primary disability each year. 

Data provided to The Varsity by a university spokesperson showed that, at UTSG alone, the total number of students registered with a disability increased from 2,941 in the 2013–2014 school year to 5,270 in 2019–2020. The data shows a seven per cent increase in the amount of students with mental health as their primary disability, with 43 per cent in 2013–2014 and 50 per cent in 2019–2020. 

UTSC showed the most stark increase in mental health-related requests. During the 2013–2014 school year, only 35 per cent of the total 517 registered students had mental health as their primary disability. The proportion increased to 52 per cent out of 1,496 registered students during 2019–2020. However, these are general trends that mostly pre-date COVID-19.