The University of Toronto is kicking off a fall term unlike any other its 193-year history – and Dr. Andrea Levinson wants students on all three campuses to know U of T’s mental health services are open and available to them.
“There has been some mythology that because of the pandemic, our health and wellness support and services would not be available, but that is absolutely not true,” says Levinson, U of T’s psychiatrist-in-chief, health and wellness.
“We are here for you when you need us.”
U of T has taken unprecedented steps to keep community members safe this semester while delivering an unparalleled post-secondary experience. Nevertheless, Levinson emphasizes that, while paying attention to how you are feeling emotionally is always essential, mental health has taken on an increased importance amid the pressures brought on by the global pandemic.
“The pandemic touches everything,” Levinson says, noting that COVID-19 has exacerbated existing pressures including: economic and racial disparities; identities around gender or ethnicity; living arrangements; pre-existing mental, physical or learning challenges; relationship issues; and financial stress.
“All of these pressures are always important to our stability, but this pandemic can make them worse.”
Research shows that about 75 per cent of mental health problems and illness occurs before the age of 25 and about 80 per cent of young people in this age group are engaged in post-secondary learning. That means colleges and universities are often places where mental health challenges are most likely to emerge.
“Most of our students are in a period where they are transitioning from adolescence to becoming emerging adults,” Levinson says. “And we know – through experience and through research – that people in this age range are likely to experience a mental health or substance use disorder more than any other age group.”
In addition, students arriving at university for the first time are making the transition to a new, more demanding academic experience. “It’s a whole new world in university and it’s perfectly normal for all first-year students to find that this first year takes some getting used to,” says Levinson, who is also an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine’s department of psychiatry.
Given these realities, Levinson says U of T has developed a comprehensive program of services and supports that are designed specifically for people in this “emerging adult” stage of life.
“Young adults have very special needs that are different than children or middle- or older-aged adults,” says Levinson. “That’s why we have worked hard to customize a program that is specific to their needs and integrates mental and physical health to provide a wide range of support.
“We know that many students who seek mental health support will access a hospital emergency department for the first time. That’s not a warm, inviting way to have your mental health concern treated when you first encounter it. So, we have integrated services that can help students as members of this university community at earlier phases.”
Levinson says the move to virtual delivery of mental health services and counselling during COVID-19 is well-suited to students.
“Students in this age range have a tremendous affinity with telehealth and digital communications,” she says. “They have grown up with digital, so they adapt to digital health services incredibly well. The pandemic is awful but it is offering health professionals opportunities for a new kind of care around mental health service delivery. That’s positive. We’ve had to spin quickly into the virtual realm of supporting mental health for students and we’ll get better – and that won’t go away, even after the pandemic is over.
“This push to virtual care will broaden the ways we can help students in terms of access, service delivery and support.”
The St. George, Mississauga and Scarborough campuses each have a health and wellness centre where students can begin to seek support.
“We are mostly virtual now, so students can contact us with a simple phone call,” says Janine Robb, executive director, health and wellness.
“We have moved in-person workshops to video and online offerings, we’ve created a topic-based community group to provide an opportunity for peer-to-peer interaction in a virtual space. We are working towards having our group programming online as well so that we are providing the same opportunities for students that they had pre-COVID. And if our health professionals feel an in-person appointment is necessary or more effective, that can be accommodated too.”
In the meantime, Levinson suggests a few coping practices to keep yourself grounded:
- Stay informed so you know what’s going on, but also take breaks so news of the pandemic doesn’t overwhelm you.
- Remember that mental health and physical health are integrated. One supports the other. So a few healthy practices will improve both. Stay active, eat healthy, and get lots of sleep. Routine is especially helpful when it comes to eating and sleeping.
- Stay connected. There’s no one way to stay connected. Find your community. Set boundaries, with media and social media for sure, but also in relationships, especially if someone is making you feel bad.
- Watch your substance use. Many people use more substances – from food to tobacco to narcotics to alcohol – in stressful times like this pandemic. Be mindful of this and don’t be afraid to seek the support of U of T health and wellness counsellors when you suspect use is becoming harmful abuse.
Students can speak to a trained crisis worker at any hour of the day.
- U of T My SSP for students: call 1-844-451-9700 or download the app at the Apple App Store or Google Play. Immediate counselling support is available in 35 languages and ongoing support in 146 languages.
Other 24-7 supports available include:
- Good 2 Talk Student Helpline 1-866-925-5454. Professional counselling, information and referrals for mental health, addictions and well-being.
- Gerstein Crisis Centre 416-929-5200
- Distress Centres of Greater Toronto 416-408-HELP (4357)
- The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at 250 College Street
- Hope for Wellness Help Line for Indigenous Peoples: 1-855-242-3310
The following services are available to students on all three campuses:
- St. George campus: Health and Wellness Centre (416-978-8030)
- U of T Scarborough: Health & Wellness Centre 416-287-7065
- U of T Mississauga: Health & Counselling Centre 905-828-5255
Faculty and staff have access to 24-7 support through:
- The Employee & Family Assistance Program (EFAP), offered through Homewood Health, online and by phone at 1-800-663-1142