Pressing Pause for Mental Wellness: Reflections from Peer Educators
Charlene Aviles, Nikita Banga, Punit Garg and Elena Le
2021/2022 Peer Educators, SFU Public Square
With the sudden shift to remote learning and the rigorous efforts almost a year and a half later to bring everything "back to normal," the global pandemic has brought about tremendous changes to post-secondary education.
As a group of students who joined SFU Public Square’s Peer Education Program to foster meaningful conversations about issues that affect students the most, these changes have been deeply personal to us.
One of the most common issues for SFU students we heard during our interviews and research for this program in September 2021 was mental health. Students brought up a number of factors that affected their mental health due to the pandemic: constant anxiety from an unending stream of COVID-related news; loneliness from a lack of social life that is typically a staple of the university experience; and the many challenges brought about by the shift to remote learning. As restrictions loosened up in 2022, unease sprung up again. Students voiced their concerns about their personal and loved ones’ safety, and those who once greatly benefitted from remote education now scramble to fit in a three-hour daily commute, four courses, a part-time job and taking care of their families.
And so, we came up with the idea of Press Pause: A Mental Wellness Pop-Up, a space where all students are welcome to destress, destigmatize conversations about mental health, ask questions and get answers, and voice their thoughts on how SFU can better support our mental health and wellness.
Planning “Press Pause”
We wanted every component of the space to serve a specific purpose. As a whole, we wanted it to convey our vision of what it means to have a for-students space: a place to wind down, to have non-judgemental conversations about how we really feel, and to voice our thoughts about how the university can better support us.
We were fortunate enough to have guidance throughout the entire process. The whole SFU Public Square team offered a comprehensive curriculum on community engagement and chimed in on many brainstorming sessions. And through a roundtable discussion with SFU’s Health Peers and further consultation with SFU Health & Counselling, we were given invaluable information on best practices for organizing student-centric events and conducting surveys for students.
From March 23–24, we hosted Press Pause: A Mental Wellness Pop-Up, a welcoming space for SFU students to talk about mental health and accessibility. Held at the Burnaby and Surrey campuses, our interactive two-day pop-up included free food and fun activities such as origami-making and a colour-based mood tracker that asked “How are you feeling today?” Students who visited our booth were also given the opportunity to participate in a short survey that would help identify key factors that impact SFU students' mental health, and how students are accessing mental health resources at SFU. Those who completed the survey could then spin a wheel to win self-care prizes like stress balls, motivational stickers, journals and candles.
To our surprise, hundreds of students showed up at our booth. Several expressed their enthusiasm over the food and fun activities, and many asked for similar events in the future. The most rewarding thing was seeing how engaged the students were and how we were able to bring a little joy to their day. One student who interacted with our mood tracker noted that after a very stressful day, they felt much happier as soon as they encountered our booth. Another student mentioned how the origami activity helped them calm down and feel much better.
Our survey gave us an interesting glimpse into what students are currently facing amidst a global pandemic while navigating post-secondary education. In total, we received 333 survey responses submitted by undergraduate students: 53 per cent were in their first or second year and 47 per cent were in their third year or above.
When asked about the impact of COVID-19 on students’ mental health, we were met with mixed responses. About 41 per cent reported that they felt worse about their mental health than before, while 33 per cent reported that they felt better. Similarly, when asked if they felt that COVID-19 had impacted their academic performance, the results were divided, with 55 per cent of students who agreed with the statement and 45 per cent who said otherwise.
Of those in agreement, the most common factor had to do with remote learning. Many students shared struggles with concentrating on their classes from home, maintaining a good work ethic and attaining information in an online format. “I didn't care as much about my classes or putting in effort when it was all online,” one student expressed. Another noted that “the shift to online lessons with the pace of university was very hard to cope with.”
The lack of in-person activities and opportunities for in-person social interaction also came up frequently. Many felt disconnected without the option for face-to-face study sessions with other students. It was also more difficult to communicate virtually, especially when working on group projects and presentations.
One student’s response gave us a broader understanding of both the positive and negative impacts of the shift to remote learning, which better explains why the results were divided:
“It made some classes easier to manage when it shifted online. I did not have to worry about commute times and could have meetings just from my desk. However, it also affected the things that I was learning, as there was some content I wish I had learned in person as it would be more memorable.”
Recommendations to the university
Despite remote learning being the source of clashing opinions, one consensus remained: we need better access to SFU’s mental health services. At the end of our survey, we asked students for recommendations on how SFU can better support the mental wellness of students.
Here’s what they had to say:
- Improve the promotion of existing mental health resources and provide more guidance on how to access them
- Ensure the quality of counselling services so that all students can have a positive experience
- Increase the counselling staff for reduced waitlists and better flexibility
- Increase walk-in time availabilities
- Increase in-person events
- Expand course offerings on mental health topics
- Destigmatize and popularize mental health-related knowledge among the student body
- Facilitate mental wellness groups
- Offer more resources and activities at the Surrey campus
We were proud to amplify students' voices and bring these recommendations to SFU leadership. As we tread anxiously on a thin rope back to normality, we must remember that we are still in unprecedented times and that mental health matters.