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Opinion: Between winter and lockdown, U of T must proactively promote mental health

Mental health should be given as much importance as physical health
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It is essential for U of T to incorporate mental health into lectures. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
It is essential for U of T to incorporate mental health into lectures. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

With the falling temperatures and rise in COVID-19 cases, it is a precarious time for the mental health of many students at U of T. And yet our mental health is being neglected. 

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that is triggered by the change to colder, darker weather. With the temperature dropping to as low as -21 degrees Celsius in Toronto, many students are very likely struggling with SAD. Passing this disorder off as the ‘winter blues’ and neglecting the resulting mental health spirals can be dangerous, because SAD has a tremendous impact on students’ daily lives. 

As Ontario has once again entered a stage 2 lockdown, we have been deprived of many simple pleasures, such as daily coffee shop chats with friends or the chance to unwind at a bar on the weekends. No indoor dining options, plus the frigid gloomy atmosphere outside, has compelled many to stay in. This kind of social isolation comes with a number of consequences. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle famously said, “man is a social animal.” Social isolation can invoke feelings of loneliness and harm relationships — which can have adverse effects on our mental health. 

For U of T students especially, January is already a stressful month because of the release of fall semester grades and the workload of a new semester. This, combined with students’ lack of support due to social isolation and seasonal depression, is enough of a reason why mental health should be a priority right now. 

Hence, mental health needs to be given the same level of importance as physical health. ‘MoveU’ is a tri-campus initiative at U of T that encourages physical activity and promotes a healthy lifestyle. One of its initiatives is virtual movement breaks, which are five to 15-minute breaks during lectures that are intended to re-energize us. With many of us watching our lectures in our beds, this is a great strategy to improve the amount of physical activity that students are getting. However, I believe the mental health of students is equally important and, as a result, mental health breaks should also be incorporated into lectures.

The mental health breaks could be in the form of short five-minute videos. U of T could create an initiative in which students and professors can volunteer to collaborate and create these videos. These videos could provide information on how to access mental health resources at U of T and in Ontario, highlight the importance of mental health, and include some mental health tips that students may not already know. 

In addition to common calls to prioritize sleep, journalling, and allocating some electronics-free time every day, the videos could include tips more relevant to students. For instance, they could promote the use of sunlamps to reduce SAD. The videos could even include unusual useful tips that have been backed by research, like taking cold showers or showering in the dark. We most often hear about hot showers, but cold showers actually improve emotional wellness, and showers in the dark are extremely helpful when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

U of T could ask professors to play any one mental health video during each lecture. The videos could also be created in collaboration with the Department of Psychology at U of T, which does some of the best research in the country, and which we should definitely be harnessing to students’ benefit. Furthermore, as an institution excelling in psychology research, U of T should recognize how vital mental health is. 

Another way to emphasize the importance of mental health at U of T would be by introducing the concept of a ‘mental health let off.’ This could be applied to any one specific graded assignment during the semester. For example, the professor could allocate it as an opportunity to take a late extension or skip a weekly quiz with no consequences, depending on the structure of their course. This policy could reduce stress among students and allow them to take a tiny load off without having to explain themselves. 

Of course, educational videos and flexibility on assignments are far from comprehensive in solving the problem of student mental health. Nevertheless, it is essential for U of T to incorporate mental health into lectures. This would stimulate conversation around mental health in general and allow students to prioritize their own health. In addition, it would implicitly spread the message that struggling with your mental health is normal. This reassurance would help reduce the stigma around mental health and encourage students to seek help if they need it.

Considering the number of stressors and mental health triggers at this time of the year, it becomes even more important that U of T take action. 

Shreya Vanwari is a second-year psychology student at Woodsworth College.