A new school year is stressful at the best of times. During a pandemic, it’s especially challenging.
As classes resume at VIU for the 2021-22 academic year, both in-person and online, the focus is on mental health—especially for students.
Prior to the pandemic, counselling was available in-person through Student Affairs and the former faculty of International Education. Students could see domestic or international counsellors, or an Indigenous counsellor. They could access walk-in crisis counselling or book an appointment.
Counselling transitioned to virtual formats after campuses shut down on March 15, 2020, and students had to book appointments online or over the phone.
There were also mental health supports available off-campus. Counselling was available on a drop-in basis through Island Health or Here2Talk, a 24/7 phone line and app launched by the BC government in April 2020.
According to Gemma Armstrong, a counsellor at VIU, demand for counselling was high the year before COVID-19 hit. It decreased with the lockdown, as students likely weren’t aware services were still available via other platforms. Soon, however, counsellors were fully booked again.
“The counselling team has been pleasantly surprised at how well we can still connect with students with virtual counselling,” Armstrong said.
Student Advocate Sarah Segal noticed higher mental health concerns among students. “[They] mentioned that their academic concerns or issues had increasing impacts on their mental health, and without the usual robust support systems in their lives due to COVID-19, they expressed challenges accessing support, accessing counselling, feeling isolated, and generally struggling,” she said.
Students also worried about finances, housing, and technology issues when accessing their courses, and the future in general.
But Segal also noticed they were more proactive when it came to their mental wellbeing. They were aware of services on and off campus and were either accessing them or intended to. “I think there is a greater awareness of the challenges students and other individuals face, and an emphasis on open dialogue about mental health and wellness,” she said.
Sara LaMarre is VIU’s Mental Health Strategist. She said, “Often, when we think of the term mental health, we actually think of mental illness, but we all have mental health. And some of us have good days, some of us have bad days, and that can exist in connection to mental illness or separate from mental illness.”
Student response to the new virtual counselling varied. Some embraced the flexibility of virtual services, while others felt they weren’t getting the support they needed.
“Students expressed challenges in accessing mental health support in a timely manner—they felt there were not quite enough counsellors available,” Segal said. “[When] they did access counselling, they were grateful, felt supported, and appreciated the counsellors.”
In the past year, VIU put on various workshops and events in order to promote mental health awareness. Two of the most popular were Movies for Mental Health in October 2020 and Poetry for Mental Health in November, held online. Both events drew close to 100 virtual participants. While popular, attendance during these events wavered further into the school year with the course workload and Zoom fatigue.
Going forward, there will be more programs and counselling offered in-person, although there will still be virtual options in order to accommodate each student’s individual needs.
Thriving in Action (TiA) is an eight-week online program developed in 2017 by Ryerson University. It was first offered at VIU in January 2021 and will be returning this September. The program combines wellness topics and learning strategies in order to help students increase their skills and resiliency. They can also earn credit towards their Co-Curricular Record (CCR) through these sessions.
Speaking about TiA, LaMarre said, “We’re kind of taught that success happens after accomplishment, and happiness happens after we’re successful. [It’s] this idea that ‘I’ll be happy when midterms are over,’ or ‘when I graduate,’ or ‘when I get that job,’ or whatever. But … happiness actually makes us successful. It’s a precursor to success.”
Students can choose to attend one or more of the weekly TiA Zoom sessions. The program starts September 24th and runs until November 19th. Registration is open for students.
A new peer support program under the Thrive umbrella will also be available on campus at the end of September. Wellness Peers, a group of trained volunteer students, will be located in the new Wellness Lounge at the VIU Nanaimo Campus Library. Students will be able to connect with them on a drop-in basis and talk to them about anything from mental health to navigating life on campus.
The pilot program will provide support three days a week. A schedule will be posted on the Thrive website once more details are finalized. Applications are currently being accepted.
Alex Waite is a fourth-year student in the Visual Arts program, with a Minor in Studies in Women and Gender. She has worked as a Community Leader (CL) at VIU Student Residences and has been a part of Thrive and Talk to Me (T2M), a program under Thrive that puts on events to get students connected to their campus culture. T2M will post its new schedule for the fall 2021 semester once it is complete.
Last November, Waite spoke as part of the CCR Talk “The Healthy Persona: Finding Resilience through Leadership.” This year, she is also the student education activity lead for the Sexual Conduct Education Response & Steering Committee.
Waite was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 14 and visited counselling regularly, including at VIU. During the pandemic, she started seeing a counsellor outside of campus. “[Counselling] can be a good or bad experience depending on [whether or not] you connect with your counsellor,” she said.
Her advice for students coming to campus this year is: “Definitely get involved … I think the best way to find a community on campus is to volunteer for things, go to all the events, and just don’t be afraid to talk to people and be vulnerable yourself. Because when you’re open and honest with who you are, then people will reciprocate that and that’s how you create strong lasting bonds.”
No matter what this year holds, students can be assured that there are resources and people willing to help them navigate this new and uncertain chapter of their lives.
Students are encouraged to check out Thrive’s website and socials (Instagram: @viuthrive; Facebook: @thriveviu) for more information on upcoming events. To book a counselling appointment, visit the student services website.