Midterms, essays, group projects, and exams are on the horizon and the number of Covid-19 cases rises. It’s only the beginning of November, but the pangs and benefits of the pandemic are just setting in. 

Student struggle to adapt and keep up with online learning as they face new challenges. A graduate student shares: “Our in-person coop was cancelled, and now we are being provided with an adapted practicum, but it’s more lecture style, so our cohort feels we’ve been robbed of our experience. Also, with online Zoom chats and Facebook Messenger, there is a disconnect between how people react on text versus in-person.”

As students grapple with the everchanging circumstances, Erin Kraftcheck, the Health & Counselling Center (HCC) director at UTM, is working to strengthen the UTM community through remote health services. “Mental health and wellness remain our priority and have become even more relevant in light of the pandemic,” says Kraftcheck. 

In March, universities worldwide closed their campuses and adopted online learning methods to protect their students. Although some courses are still in-person and thus allow for some form on human interaction, “the effect of pandemic measures, while important, have an impact on our sense of community and resiliency,” Kraftcheck expresses. Her comments reflect a shared perspective amongst students.

“It’s been hard not to be at school. I miss seeing my friends and grabbing lunch in IB. Some of my friends are in different countries and with different time zones that it can feel overwhelming,” a third-year student expresses. Her friend nods in agreement. “Doing online school was actually better at first until I took some courses that required us to handwrite and upload scans, which is super stressful! [At some point,] online school became a burden.” 

Since universities and colleges respect city-wide restrictions, the HCC also had to ensure that required infection prevention measures were “balanced with student support from the HCC and other services in student affairs,” says Kraftcheck.

So, how is UTM combatting loneliness and stress in a socially distanced environment? “The HCC recognizes that fostering a sense of community is critical in the current circumstances, especially for out-of-province and international students,” continues Kraftcheck. “The HCC has launched a number of virtual peer-led programs and initiatives since the start of the pandemic to promote wellness, resiliency, and community.” 

The HCC also adopted video communications in an effort to bridge the gap between students. “The Peers Supporting Peers Program offers weekly wellness workshops led by upper-year UTM Peer Mentors on topics such as: Discovering Your Wellness, Creating a Wellness Log, Self-Management, and Building Your Mental Health Roadmap.” 

I joined in on the Peers Supporting Peers Program’s “Discovering Your Wellness” group workshop hosted by Wellness at UTM. Free of charge and hosted through Zoom, the upper-year mentors explored wellness and how we can achieve it. 

With compassion and kindness, the upper-year students encouraged their peers to focus on acquiring a balanced lifestyle. Students may apply the mentors’ goal-setting advice to various areas in their lives, from relationships to diet, fitness, academics, and even finances! The hour of interpersonal interaction, openness, and planning became the building block for new goals and friendships.

Participating in virtual workshops also has additional benefits. “Moving into the virtual environments allowed for some students to access mental health support more easily, from the comfort of their homes,” says Kraftcheck. Students can invite their friends to experience these events too, which provides a greater sense of unity. 

With quirky names and focused topics, students can also seek a balanced lifestyle with Wellness at Home. The HCC created the Wellness at Home Program to provide interactive activities and wellness tips for remote lifestyles. The program “features daily wellness workshops, activities, and resources from Mondays through Fridays.” 

On Mindful Mondays, mindfulness meditation leads students through meditative activities. “The Together Tuesday series consists of weekly wellness-inspired activities and conversations, offering a safe virtual space for students to connect and share strategies and resources,” explains Kraftcheck. 

Additionally, Wellness Wednesday: Wellness 101 Workshops, Self-Care Thursday, and Foodie Friday spur students to participate in engaging activities and try new recipes.

Along with attending these sessions, Kraftcheck urges students to “make sure to schedule breaks to go screen-free, including going outside, practicing mindfulness or deep breathing, and connecting with loved ones.”  

Moreover, students can also connect with counsellors virtually. For direct support for mental health concerns, HCC “works to ensure [students] are aware of resources and care options, including having 24/7 access to My Student Support Program (MySSP), which includes options for telephone and chat support in multiple languages,” says Kraftcheck.

MySSP offers 24/7 counselling on a one-time or continued basis. You may discuss general, academic, financial, and relationship concerns. The HCC also hosts “several mental health workshops on a variety of topics including self-compassion, [and] combatting negative body image during isolation,” says Kraftcheck, adding, “Help continues to always be available.”

Student have indeed made use of these virtual support programs when needed. A third-year student expresses: “During the pandemic, I dated a guy, and he made me feel really insecure, and that fuelled my depression. Luckily, I had access to a psychiatrist, so my support system has basically been my psychiatrist, close friends, and family that I can open up to.” 

Beyond their mental health and wellness programs, students can also receive guidance from peer mentors through UTM Accessibility Services. This month, mentors gathered to host a “Mid-Semester Survival Guide.” 

“We thought about what we struggled with most personally and came up with: distractions at home and feeling unmotivated and burned out during these times,” explains Elisa Nguyen, one of the leading peer mentors.

“We were able to have great conversations, and [the participants] were really engaged in sharing their experiences. It was nice hearing everyone’s answers and talking together,” Nguyen says, smiling.

With these events and services available to students, Kraftcheck reminds us to “be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to take breaks for self-care. We are all trying our best and learning as we go.” 

As we look forward to the peak of the second wave, HCC stands firm in its dedication to student wellness. “Our vision for our wellness UTM programs and initiatives is to cultivate a healthy and supportive campus environment where all students are able to thrive to their fullest. We will strive to continue to bring students innovative events, initiatives, and resources that promote wellness, resiliency, and community,” Kraftcheck shares, and we look forward to seeing it come to fruition.

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