Canadians stressed out by COVID-19 aren’t making use of online mental health resources

As Canadians have adjusted to the pandemic over the past year, studies suggest they are stressed out — but not making use of evidence-based online mental health resources that might support their well-being.

For third-year computer engineering student David Kang, navigating student life during the pandemic has been a struggle. “Your daily life changes,” said Kang. He points to not being able to attend in-person classes or the recreational activities that he usually enjoys as further contributing to his COVID-19 stress.

Kang is not alone in feeling stressed by the lifestyle shift brought on by the pandemic.

A recent collaboration between a UBC team of researchers and the Canadian Mental Health Association found that nearly two thirds of Canadians reported an adverse mental health experience during the pandemic. Youth between the ages of 19 and 24 — the age group forming the bulk of UBC’s student population — were reported to have experienced the greatest levels of mental health deterioration.

“You can see it in our student body. People are stressed out,” said Dr. Emily Jenkins, an associate professor in the School of Nursing and the lead researcher on the project. “Doing all the work online is taking a toll. Not having opportunities to connect with peers … is a real challenge.”

According to Jenkins, this COVID-19 stress can manifest in a number of ways. Students who are struggling to retain information in their classes, feeling more anxious, irritable or tired, as well as suffering from disrupted sleep patterns may want to consider the benefit of online mental health resources.

“I think that these virtual mental health resources are one strategy that’s out there [and] accessible, regardless of the pandemic restrictions,” said Jenkins. “I would encourage people to check them out if they’re feeling these difficult emotions [or] if they’re finding themselves worrying or having negative thought patterns, being stressed out — that kind of thing.”

Despite this COVID-19-related stress, less than three per cent of the survey respondents who experienced adverse mental health outcomes reported using evidence-based digital mental health resources. These resources are particularly valuable during the pandemic as they don’t involve face-to-face contact with a provider.

When asked why Canadians may not be accessing these resources, Jenkins said it may be due to a lack of awareness: one fifth of the survey respondents had no idea these resources existed.

Like many Canadians, Kang had not heard of these online resources, but he has found other ways to help himself cope.

“It is really important to keep track and keep tabs on your mental health. Make sure that your physical health is also up to that healthy [standard],” he said. “To do that, I constantly remind myself that I have to exercise twice a week. I try to get as much fresh air as I can.

“... It’s really tough because you’re sitting at your desk looking at your monitor all day. So, I try to take as many breaks away from electronics and computers as possible.”

Jenkins suggested a similar pattern, saying that students should consider “mental health promoting behaviours,” like eating healthy and timing meals to remain energetic throughout the day. As isolation can contribute to COVID-19 stress, she recommended connecting with peers and friends through online media or from a safe distance.

Unlike many for-profit apps, the online mental health resources considered in the study are evidence based, government supported and — for some students — free. Bounceback is a course-based resource available to residents of BC, Ontario and Manitoba. Wellness Together Canada and WellCan are digital resources that are available to all Canadians.

Another digital resource available to UBC students is Campus Lightbox, a website that was co-founded by Kang. Though he is no longer directly affiliated with the site, Kang recommended that students struggling with their mental health or feeling particularly overwhelmed consider using this resource.

For students struggling with their mental health, the data says that they are not alone or without support. This finals season, the resources recommended by Jenkins and Kang may be one strategy worth considering as a way to improve one’s mental health, well-being and the quality of their student experience.