By Tim Kalinowski on March 5, 2021.
The Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs welcomed University of Lethbridge associate vice-president of students Kathleen Massey to its weekly livestream YouTube speaker series to talk about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental well-being of students at the university.
According to a recently conducted student survey, about 30 per cent of students report feelings of loneliness, disconnection and frustration that they are not able to engage in their education as they would wish.
“You can see one thread that came up in several surveys and conversations is this notion of isolation,” Massey explained, “and again feeling disconnected or having low quality interactions with other students. So there were challenges, and there continue to be challenges with a remote existence when they have applied for having an education that is really place based.”
The same survey reported 35 per cent of students feel they have insufficient study space, 12 per cent feel they have poor internet access, and 10 per cent have limited access to computers or tablets to take part in virtual classroom activities properly.
Massey, who also runs the university’s registrar office, says the implications of these frustrations has led to a 4.2 per cent dropout rate in 2020, double the normal yearly dropout rate.
She also said 28 per cent more students compared to 2019/ 2020 sought individual counselling from her staff in 2020/ 2021, and 45 per cent more students took part in group workshops and group counselling sessions.
“The good news is they reached out for that support,” Massey said.
“They looked to our counselors who met with them and continued to provide support by telephone and online through a special version of Zoom that is quite confidential. It gave the opportunities to attend special pandemic-related workshops â€¦ There was a pandemic-related book club. Some of these were approaches to try to address the sense of loneliness to bring people together.”
The loneliness and isolation has also likely led to more risky off-campus gatherings and activities for some students since the province allowed bars and restaurants to re-open, Massey acknowledged.
“I am concerned about their health,” she said when asked about reports of increased student gatherings at local pubs and restaurants.
“I am concerned that they stay well and take all the precautions that are advised by public health to remain healthy.
“To not see themselves as invincible and unaffected by the pandemic.
“But I also understand that group-based activities at this point in time are really just a reaction, and a manifestation, of what perhaps many of us are feeling, which is frustration and exhaustion from the restrictions. I hope they will change their approach so we can maintain a very safe campus community when we return for significant activity in the fall.”
With provincial cuts to the university setting the backdrop, Massey was asked if these cuts have impacted the range of services they could offer students in need of mental health supports on campus.
There is some good news on that front, stated Massey.
“We received excellent news (on Wednesday) that our funding for mental health has been left intact this year,” she confirmed. “We were expecting a decrease, but it has been left at the higher (current) level. And it has been confirmed for three years, not just one year.
“That is important for us because now we can plan with certainty to continue to provide support to our students in terms of their mental health. So it was excellent news in an otherwise challenging (budget) announcement about other cutbacks.”
Massey said she also has enrolment advisers reaching out to those students who dropped out due to the pandemic to try to bring them back in the fall.
“It is important, in my view, we don’t allow this pandemic to end the story for those students in terms of their educational development and personal development,” she said, “particularly since we know right now there are not so many jobs available yet. I think we want to reach back and pull them forward, and help them facilitate their re-engagement.”
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