COVIDcast

UCalgary podcasts feature interviews with experts from our community on the COVID-19 situation.

Episode 28: Student Mental Health

June 12, 2020

For our students, the coronavirus pandemic has been an especially tough time. They've been dealing with questions about living arrangements, moving to online classes, research delays and uncertainty about when things will return to normal. Dr. Kevin Baird (BSc ’00, MSc ’02, MD ‘05), a psychiatrist in our Student Wellness Centre, talks about providing mental health support for students, some of the issues they're facing, and what supports are available for students during the pandemic and when they return to campus.

Dr. Kevin Baird (KB): I think having a balanced lifestyle, trying to be doing what you used to do as much as possible, whether that's just a regular routine of getting out of bed at the same time, having a shower, getting outside, having three square meals a day, I just think trying to maintain that sort of consistency that was life before all these changes. I think that's a really good start.

Nuvyn Peters (NP): That was Dr. Kevin Baird, a psychiatrist with UCalgary Student Wellness Center, and this is UCalgary COVIDcast. I'm Nuvyn Peters, thanks for joining us. The coronavirus pandemic has affected all of us in one way or another, but for many of our students, it's been an especially difficult time. Today on COVIDcast, we're talking with Dr. Kevin Baird, the psychiatrist at our student wellness center. KB joins us to chat about providing mental health support for students, some of the issues they're facing and what supports are available for students during the pandemic and afterward.

Well, thanks so much for joining us today, Dr. Baird. I'm hoping you can first tell us a little bit about your role at the University of Calgary.

KB: Sure. Thank you for having me today. So I am the consulting psychiatrist at the SU Wellness Center, which is essentially the Student Health Clinic at the University of Calgary. It's right on campus at the MacEwan Student Center.

NP: So your primary responsibility is to see undergraduate and graduate students and support them in their mental health and wellness.

KB: That's absolutely right. So I see anyone from undergraduate to graduate students. I believe I've seen 17 years old up to 67 years old.

NP: That's a wide variety and students of all nationalities.

KB: Of course.

NP: We're such a diverse campus. What are you seeing in terms of the support that students need during this global pandemic and how their lives have really been uprooted and certainly their student experience has.

DB: Yeah. I'm seeing a wide range of mental health problems, even obviously before the pandemic but depression, anxiety, addictions, trauma, all sorts of things that are obviously complicated by the pandemic. It's a little bit different because I'm exclusively working from home, so I'm doing virtual appointments with them over the telephone until the clinic reopens again, hopefully soon.

NP: Yeah. Yeah. And so how do students reach out and contact you now?

KB: Yeah. So I'm still busy three months in advance. So I have booked appointments all the way up until August, but if patients or students need to contact me, they can contact the SU Wellness Center, leave a message and one of our staff members will get back to them to arrange an appointment with me.

NP: Mm. And so what types of support can you or guidance can you provide during this time? You mentioned many students who are struggling with anxiety or depression or addiction. What resources are there to support students as we navigate through this new reality, this uncertainty?

KB: There's never enough mental health resources. That's what we've always said, but I believe that the University of Calgary student population to has a really strong support network, not just the Student Wellness Center, but a lot of the other supports available on campus. So with our clinic, we offer counseling, medical support, psychiatric support. So there are a lot of resources available. The students just need to reach out to find them.

NP: Reaching out, as we all know, is that first step. Are there peer resources available for students or what are things and signs that people should be looking for in terms of being aware that someone that they know and love may be struggling during this time?

KB: There's definitely a peer supports and I would encourage the students or family members of the students to just to go on the University of Calgary website and search for those and we can maybe provide some more resources at the end. There are different signs to look for in mental illness or mental disorders. The big ones are besides symptoms of depression, anxiety, change in sleep or appetite or interest, just a change in functioning. If the student just is no longer doing well at school or starts to isolate themselves from friends, which is a strange time to be talking about isolation.

So that one's a difficult one to determine; but just a change in their behaviors and their personality and their ability to go to work or go to school or have social relationships. I think those are warning signs to maybe access help.

NP: And as our society begins to slowly re-emerge and we've seen over the past couple of weeks as we enter stage one with limited restaurant openings and playgrounds and parks and provincial national parks and whatnot, what are you anticipating you might see as the university contemplates what the fall might look like, whether that's online or in person and how can we best support our students during this time?

KB: Those are all really good questions that I don't have the crystal ball answers to. There's obviously a lot of uncertainty for all of us. Rules are changing, seems like daily or weekly. I don't even know when our own clinic is going to be reopening. I think the bottom line is people are going to need more support as the world starts to reopen again. I'm only one person but I'm going to be available to offer that extra support. I'm going to ask my colleagues and people on campus to also extend their extra support whenever possible. I think the majority of people are going to be struggling, but there have been some students who have actually been thriving in this sort of strange new world.

NP: Tell me a little more about that in terms of students that are thriving during this time.

KB: There're various reasons. Some of the students say that they prefer to be introverted and don't want the social obligations of going to class or interacting with people in public or taking public transit. So they kind of like hiding in their house. Other people have been comforted by this sort of sense of universal distress; misery loves company. So now they feel like everyone else knows what they're going through. The final reason that some people have given me is they've been able to avoid responsibility. They are no longer working or they're taking some time off school and just less structure, less responsibility has helped their anxiety.

NP: Yeah. Interesting. You definitely see people outside a lot more, I have to say. And if there's one thing that I think we know about mental health and wellness, it's getting some fresh air and getting some exercise are really important factors. The number of people that I see out and I was reading yesterday that bike sales in Calgary have skyrocketed. So if, as a silver lining through this pandemic, we can promote a culture that is perhaps more vibrant or benefits of the outdoors, maybe that would be a good thing.

KB: I definitely think we're going to appreciate things that we used to take for granted. Absolutely. As you said, fresh air, exercise, being with friends. So I think there could be a lot of benefit and rejuvenation from this.

NP: Right. Certainly in when there's uncertainty in life and of course that is all life perhaps is, there's nothing that we know about... Nothing is guaranteed in our future. But now that we're all living under this banner of uncertainty, whether that's from a health standpoint economically and without even knowing as you mentioned earlier, like when the Student Wellness Center is going to open up again, that can create a lot of anxiety. What tools or tips do you have for people to cope with that uncertainty?

KB: That's a really good question. I think having that emotional support with friends and loved ones is very crucial. I think having a balanced lifestyle, trying to be doing what you used to do as much as possible, whether that's just a regular routine of getting out of bed at the same time, having a shower, getting outside, having three square meals a day, I just think trying to maintain that sort of consistency that was life before all these changes. I think that's a really good start, but the bottom line is a lot of people are going to be struggling regardless. And that's okay too, because as much as I'd like reassure everyone that we're all going to be okay, there is a lot of uncertainty and I think it is almost normal to be a little stressed and anxious in this state right now.

NP: Yeah. And then you overlay the economic impact as well too. I know people are concerned about their employment, that of their loved ones, the economy and that adds an extra layer in addition to the global health crisis of uncertainty at this time and concern about one's future.

KB: My response to that is I feel so lucky to be living in Canada and I'm very grateful that we live in Canada. I think there are a lot of things that we can appreciate here that maybe don't occur in other countries, including the government support economically. So I try to look at that silver lining that as bad as it is here, there are some really great things that Canada offers and I think fellow Canadians offer us as well.

NP: It is a time and that's something I've noticed about Calgary in particular, that under crisis people really band together. And I think in our lifetime, this is going to be one of those markers of significant crisis and hardship. I wonder what people will say when they look back on this time of COVID and this era of COVID.

KB: I think there'll be a lot of reflection. I think it'll actually be fascinating. Everywhere from the medical side to just the economical as you said, the psychological and social aspects, I think there'll be a lot of interesting studies and reflection personally on it.

NP: Yeah. And from a mental health standpoint, you've seen over the last years movements such as the Let's Talk Movement or I'm Not Myself Today Movement. As a result of this pandemic, do you see a greater awareness of mental health and wellness and just checking in on yourself and each other on how we're doing?

KB: Absolutely. One of the greatest achievements that I think that the mental health system has done over the years is reducing stigma to look for help. The campus has done a great job of promoting awareness and advocacy for mental health. So a lot of students are very open about the issues that they're going through and more than willing to come seek help, which is fantastic. So I think awareness and advocacy and de-stigmatization has really come a long way, especially since I started training over 10 years ago. So I think that's been a real plus.

NP: Right. And I think the role of universities in addressing this and creating these support networks have changed as well, too. When I think about my own postsecondary experience and whether there was a resource such as yourself that was even available to students on campus. I'm not sure if there was.

KB: So when I did my undergraduate degree many years ago, I honestly don't recall. I didn't even know whether there was a Student Health Clinic or not. I think there was. It was very different and smaller, I'm sure. But as you said, I do not recall if there were mental health supports or a clinic even when I was doing my undergrad. I think most students can honestly say they're at least aware of the clinic that they can access.

NP: So what do you think is the most important thing for students to know right now?

KB: They're not alone. There are supports for them. As bizarre and strange as this world has become, things will get better. There is help for them. There is hope. There is optimism. I think even in the past few weeks, I really think there's a bit of a silver lining in the air that things are starting to improve. But I think the take-home message is that students are not alone. Even though we're all isolating, there is help for them. There is support for them and they can reach out for that.

NP: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. Baird and sharing your insight and advice and perspective with all of our listeners today.

KB: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

NP: Before we go, I'd like to remind our community that mental health supports continue to be available. For all Calgarians looking for mental health support and resources, please reach out to 211 via phone or text. For students, support can be accessed through the student wellness services. For after hours support, or if you're in crisis, call Wood's Home Community Support or the Distress Center. For staff, faculty and post-doctoral scholars, supports are available through staff wellness. Additionally, Homewood Health is available and provides 24/7 mental health and crisis support. This has been UCalgary COVIDCast. To subscribe or to listen to past episodes or to get more online resources for coping with the coronavirus pandemic, visit ucalgary.ca/COVIDsupport. Thanks again to Dr. Kevin Baird for taking the time to chat with us today. I'm Nuvyn Peters. Thanks for listening.

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