New workloads causing anxiety, despair for Montreal's university students

·6 min read

It's hard for Jonathan Jay Bowers to think of anything other than his exams these days.

The third-year finance student, who attends the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, tries to walk outside to clear his head, but persistent thoughts keep returning.

"Should I be at home right now studying?" a voice in his head asks. "Is there an assignment that I'm late on?"

Bowers can't relax at home, either.

"If I'm home I need to be studying," the voice will repeat. "Why aren't I being productive right now, why aren't I studying?"

For Bowers, 20, and students like him in Montreal, the fear of catching COVID-19 pales in comparison with the anxiety and despair they feel while trying to keep up with their academic workloads. Since the spring, pre-recorded videos and Zoom meetings have replaced classrooms and lecture halls.

Ten students who attend universities in Montreal told the Montreal Gazette their mental health was suffering because of heavy workloads and technical difficulties with online schooling. Students face burnout, experts and student union representatives say, because of the effects of pandemic lockdowns and the strain of unreasonable academic pressure.

A Montreal public health survey released last week found that nearly half of those aged 18 to 29 felt that the pandemic was having a deleterious effect on their mental health. An earlier survey found that one-third of teens were suffering from mental distress. The province’s psychologists are reporting higher rates of people suffering from anxiety, concentration issues and distress, which student union representatives say are amplified by academic pressure.

"It's awful," said Amir Sadeqi, 24, a third-year software engineering student who attends Concordia University. "Everything is awful. There is no time to rest right now, nothing."

Sadeqi's professors are asking him to learn four programming languages in one semester, which he says is doable, but not under the current circumstances. Sadeqi watches lectures recorded by his professors, but says they are of poor quality and he can ask no questions.

"My mental health is not as good as before," he said. "Part of it is because of the pandemic, part of it is because of the university and the workload I'm experiencing right now."

Some students have shared stories online lauding professors who have extended deadlines or canceled assignments to give their pupils some relief. But such stories appeared to be the exception, not the rule, according to the volume of online posts to the contrary and the students who spoke to the Montreal Gazette.

"None of us have ever been through anything similar to this ever in our lives, but they haven't changed their expectations," Bowers said.

Technical difficulties recently forced Bowers to have to redo a three-hour test in only 20 minutes, so he emailed his professor for help.

"I got an email back with two words," he recalled. "It said: ‘good luck.’”

Bowers failed the exam.

Universities say they have pivoted to offer mental health services remotely, but some students report having difficulty accessing them. A Concordia spokesperson said this week that the university was aware that the pandemic was "taking its toll on everyone."

"The usual services of our health and wellness centre, including mental health support, are currently provided by phone or online," said spokesperson Vannina Maestracci. "We also have developed virtual 'Zen Dens' which allow students to chat with volunteers and offer activities that counter isolation and boost wellness."

A McGill spokesperson said new services had been added there since the start of the pandemic "ranging from one-on-one consultations with all of our clinicians to group programming, which are offered remotely as well as via limited in-person appointments."

But Julia Caddy, the mental health commissioner at the Students' Society of McGill University, said some students were having trouble accessing mental health services because demand has skyrocketed.

"In this situation, we have so many people in a critical state who are needing professional help that the demand is so much higher than the capacity that we have at this point," Caddy said.

Professors are operating under new conditions, too. Many are unfamiliar with remote learning tools and they are struggling with increased workloads, said David Robinson, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).

A recent CAUT survey found that more than 80 per cent of academic staff and faculty are suffering from high stress levels and Robinson said many are reporting serious mental health issues.

“I've heard from young academics who are thinking about quitting, saying: ‘If it lasts much longer we just can't do this. There are only so many hours in the day,'" Robinson said. "And what often happens now is that faculty also have got to deal with students who are having issues of isolation and mental health issues during the pandemic as well.

"It's kind of a vicious cycle in some ways. Your own health is suffering and then you're getting increased demands from students to help them.”

Some university or CEGEP students who have been pushed to their limits end up speaking to Dr. Perry Adler. He is a clinical psychologist who is the associate clinical supervisor and consultant at the Jewish General Hospital's Teenage Health Unit, where free COVID-19 stress management group therapy sessions are being offered to teenagers.

Young adults and teens are burning out, Adler said, in part because they're being forced to sit and stare at a screen all day.

Students tell Adler their teachers are overloading them. The problem, he said, is that the professors themselves are burnt out and are facing a new teaching environment that they were not prepared for. To cope, Adler said they are offloading more work onto their students.

“(Instructors) need to wake up and adjust things to the new reality of the pandemic,” Adler said, adding teachers should focus on the essential. "I think they need more resources — much more resources — to learn how to educate their pupils more effectively, particularly in this pandemic time.

“I'm hearing of a bunch of students saying: 'I don't know if I'm going to go back next semester. This is not worth it for me.'"

The Quebec government last week pledged $25 million to increase the availability of public mental health resources for youth and young adults, which Adler said “couldn't hurt right now.”

Still, he added, delays in receiving care persist and teens and young adults are likely to face more pandemic-related strife.

“(Youth mental health problems) are going to get worse, without a doubt," Adler said.

Matthew Lapierre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Gazette