How mental health issues and barriers look different this year during the stressful time of exams

Online learning has had a negative impact on students compared to being able to learn and study in person alongside their friends and peers. This is not simply just the opinion of some, but of many university students in Canada. 

Mental health issues among undergraduates have been on the rise for a very long time as studies show, especially as most students have spent the past semester struggling to adjust to the isolated nature of online learning. In fact, recent studies have shown that students with the opportunity to study and stay in contact with friends have much better mental health than those who remain isolated.

McMaster University is no exception to this trend. This is especially concerning given the approaching exam season. The end of the semester, with its exams sometimes worth more than 50% of a student’s final grades in a course, sleepless nights spent studying and never-ending pressure to perform “well enough,” is nothing short of one of the most stressful times in the school year for the typical student. 

The online learning environment has only made this time of year all the more stressful and challenging, as students are not able to study and learn alongside their peers as they would in previous years, creating a very lonely learning environment. Additionally, access to commonly sought resources during this time, such as one-on-one counselling or peer support as well as stress-relieving sessions and events, has been negatively affected by the shift to an online platform. This is something the Student Wellness Centre at McMaster has acknowledged as a difficulty that students will sadly have to face during this already difficult time. 

Findings on mental health among Canadians during COVID-19 from CMHA Halton Region Branch

“So when you’re on campus, you are able to interact with your peers,” explained Connor Blakeborough, the health promoter at the Student Wellness Centre. “[I]n the pandemic, a lot of people have been cut off from their ways of self-care and community care that they might be able to have otherwise.”

Unfortunately, given COVID-19 regulations and how programs at the Student Wellness Centre have had to adjust to the new way the university is operating this year, some will not be able to access their resources at all. In fact, those not living in Ontario cannot access any type of medical care or one-on-one counselling. This puts all those living in other provinces as well as international students in difficult situations if facing mental health issues during this upcoming stressful time as they do not have access to a resource many of their peers do. 

“As of right now just because of COVID and because healthcare is provincially regulated, we can only offer medical and one on one counselling to students that are living inside of Ontario,” said Blakeborough. “So if they’re not inside of Ontario, they will have to get in touch with their family doctor to find some type of care.”

From student perspectives, experiencing university in person during exam season means more than just trying to have an enjoyable experience; it can mean the difference between feeling alone in the world and being able to connect with many others who are in the exact same situation as you. 

The simplicity of being seated beside someone in the lecture hall who will soon write the same exam as you can make you feel less alone and ready to take on the challenge of exams. This perspective was explored by members of the McMaster Students Union Student Health Education Centre executive team. 

“[I]f you’re on campus, you’re often surrounded by a lot of other students in the library, who are also going through finals are also experiencing the same stress that you are, but being at home and being more isolated,” explained Joelle Li, a health sciences student and SHEC events and programming executive. “It’s harder to connect with others who are in a similar situation as you [because of the pandemic] and therefore you can feel more alone [but] other people feel like this as well.”

However, there are also challenges that students will face in the coming weeks that have existed for far too long. Grind culture, the over romanticization of sacrificing one’s health for the sake of grades and achievements, has been a pervasive and severe issue faced by undergraduate students that has simply adapted to a more online mode given the current learning method.

“People sort of put pride on the fact that they haven’t slept this many hours or they’ve been in the library for this many hours,” said Li. “[G]rind culture is almost cumulative. [I]f your friends are grinding, then you feel like you have to grind and overall, it leads to a toxic environment or mentality and this is quite common, I would say, among the students.”

It can be extremely overwhelming for students to face the challenges of online learning and online exams, which is compounded by the detrimental effects of the grind culture. However, services at McMaster University such as the Student Wellness Centre and SHEC have adapted their operations to make themselves more accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic and online school. These tools will likely be beneficial to many students as we all head into the upcoming exam season. 

SHEC Events and Programming executive and health sciences student, Frances Scheepers, explained how the peer-support service is now utilizing the online platform, Tawk To, in order to provide anonymous drop-in counselling from their volunteers. 

One of their iconic events that is usually widely accessed by students — #SHECares — will still be taking place this year. In the past, this has largely featured the distribution of exam care packages. However, this is not possible this year. Thus, SHEC has had to make adjustments. Scheepers said that instead of delivering in-person care packages, SHEC has opted to do online giveaways.

Although it is unfortunate that access to resources and services has been impeded by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is encouraging that services are striving to continue offering support in whatever ways they can. However, it is also important that students are made aware of how to take care of themselves during the online exam season as this will surely look very different this year. 

“There are certain sort of self-care strategies that might be beneficial during this time,” explained Scheepers. “People are typically used to spending their leisure time on their laptop and watching TV. And so during this time, especially, when you’re at home physically distancing, it might be beneficial for some individuals to spend their leisure time doing things other than [going] on their laptop.”

It is important students find ways to take care of themselves during the upcoming exam season, given the loss of key resources and isolated methods of learning and test-taking. After all, they will be pioneering the first entirely online exam season in McMaster history.

Images courtesy of C/O Silhouette Archives, C/O CMHA Halton Region Branch, C/O McMaster Student Wellness Centre, C/O Engin Akyurt on Unsplash, C/O SHEC and C/O MSU-SHEC

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