Aníbal Martens arrived in Canada months before the pandemic hit and immediately asked staff at Seneca College about opportunities to engage with others in his new school’s 2SLGBTQ+ community.

It turned out they needed an ambassador, a part-time role the polytechnic offers students to help others orient themselves to post-secondary campus life, and after background checks cleared, the creative marketing student got the job.

“I was available to students who might want to talk, providing them help, maybe even directing them to counselling if they needed professional help,” explained Martens, who, in that first semester, worked part-time in a secluded space in the student services room of the Markham, Ont., campus.

“I didn’t do anything exceptional, just talked to them and reassured them that they are in a safe place to be themselves,” he said.

But while Martens and Aidan D’Souza, another Seneca ambassador, jumped into the types of activities schools point to when quizzed about their support for student mental health, education academics say those most in need of help still struggle to get it.

“There are many barriers to help-seeking for students, some of which will be more relevant to students currently experiencing mental health difficulties,” said Chloe Hamza, assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s department of applied psychology and human development and director of the CARE (Coping, Affect and Resilience in Education) lab.

These barriers include feeling there isn’t enough time to seek out support amid multiple competing demands, which especially affects those experiencing fatigue or social withdrawal, she said.

“That can make it quite hard for someone to initiate help-seeking or participate in these social activities,” she said.

While Seneca’s ambassadors now offer virtual help, Martens acknowledges fewer students are reaching out since campus closed.

Some post-secondary students will jump into the various forms of social and mental health support campus (and virtual) life offers, but those that need it most are harder to reach, experts say.
Seneca College policing student Aidan D'Souza mentors new arrivals and says students should ask for help when they need it. Photo supplied by Aidan D'Souza

D'Souza, a policing student at Seneca who also volunteers as a mentor for first-year students, says the school’s pandemic response has included offering virtual cooking classes, trivia nights and cardio circuits to break up online study sessions, and encouraged students to take part.

“I go to all these events and the numbers are pretty good,” he said. “You've got to make the best out of the circumstance, that's what I found. Yes, everything is online, but it's a global pandemic, and I think students need to understand that."

Hamza said other reasons students might not take part in supplied services include wanting to cope independently or feeling that post-secondary environments are inherently stressful, not knowing what support is available or how to access it, or being put off by stigma.

She said post-secondary institutions are working to implement new Mental Health Commission of Canada standards of care for students released last year, but they must keep targeting stigma reduction and highlighting pathways to care, as well as addressing the causes of stress by building supportive communities and policies.

Chloe Hamza, the director of the CARE lab at the University of Toronto. Photo by Holly Goncalves

For her colleague Charles Pascal, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, that would mean encouraging schools to move to a pass/incomplete approach, which he’s been using since the early 1970s.

“There are obviously some students that are probably falling through the cracks and not doing very well with this virtual environment,” Pascal said, noting the scores of parents and educators contacting him in the past six months with stories of struggles with online learning.

Pascal said at least a quarter of students who enrol in post-secondary studies drop out before their first exams at the best of times, mostly due to undetected problems dealing with stress and other issues.

He added it would likely take two or three years of investment to adapt teaching methods to account for the specifics of student needs in a virtual environment.

“In the longer run, it's a matter of investing in how we do this more effectively,” he said. “In the short run, the very best we can do is figure out ways of identifying students who don't seem to be participating.”

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer