People Need People: Students Feeling Impacts Of Online School Isolation

A photo of a girl frowning while on her laptop.
Illustration by Jessalyn George

Some university students are feeling more stressed, lacking motivation, and are struggling with their mental health due to the isolation that online classes have brought on, a recent study suggests.

Lacking the experience of being on campus and in class with their peers is hard for some students who otherwise feel alone ever since COVID-19 caused universities to transition to online learning.

Students have expressed frustrations over being constantly confined to one place and losing valuable experiences as a result of pandemic restrictions, according to new research conducted by Dr. Lisa Hawke, a project scientist at the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH in Toronto. 

“School is not just about the curriculum, but the social aspect of connecting, and having relationships all be a part of the experience,” says Dr. Hawke. 

University students like Smiksha Singla have been feeling the impacts of the lack of socialization on their mental health. 

“I think my mental health has taken a big hit because a main part of my school life was friends.

There was no gradual change, it just stopped,” says Singla, a second-year creative industries student at Ryerson University. “Online learning is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” 

Singla moved from Dubai to Toronto in August 2019 to attend her first semester at Ryerson, only to leave suddenly in March 2020 when the school announced they would be closing and

transitioning to an online learning environment due to COVID-19.

She remembers looking forward to going from place to place, meeting with friends and overall, having something to look forward to in a day. Now, she is stuck in one place and describes her daily routine as “very mundane.”

Second-year University of Ottawa health sciences student Nimrit Kenth says that students are realizing how different it is to be on campus and around their peers versus being isolated from their school community at home.

“It’s a lot easier to be accountable and motivated when you have a physical obligation, as

opposed to when you’re in your bedroom and no one is expecting you to attend class, or have to see anyone,” says Kenth.

Kenth lives at home with seven other family members, so she says she doesn’t feel the effects of isolation as much as some of her peers. However,she says she knows that not everyone has a healthy family dynamic, and some students are living alone, which can make this current situation that much more difficult.

Some universities are trying to keep students connected

Universities across Ontario are offering extra resources of support for students who need to talk

to someone about their mental health concerns throughout the semester.

The University of Toronto is partnering with CAMH to launch an online discussion board that will offer students a space to connect by sharing their isolation stories during COVID-19. Students can participate under an anonymous username, or just scroll through topics of discussion without signing up. 

Ryerson is encouraging students to visit the student wellbeing page on their website for advice on keeping mentally and physically well, staying connected and offering multiple resources like access to counselling support, contact information for crisis helplines, and personal care tips so that students can explore what works best for them during stressful times.

“It’s important for mental health services to be accessible quickly, and to make sure they aren’t

stigmatizing, says Dr. Hawke. “Students just want better communication for things to be better organized, and most of all, youth actually just want to understand what’s going on.”

Students on campus, photo via Ryerson University 

Professors and instructors are also learning to adapt to teaching online in ways they haven’t

experienced before. For Karyn Pugliese, a Ryerson journalism professor, she recognizes that the current situation is new for everyone and can be frustrating at times.

Pugliese worries that students are feeling the effects of isolation and are perhaps struggling with course content, because they haven’t been able to build a relationship in-person. 

She is trying to set up times where students can have one-on-one conversations with her to talk about how they’re coping, how they feel about the course and how she can better support them.  

“[Students] don’t necessarily have that connection where they’re talking to me and they’re

seeing my reaction. Seeing me nod saying, ‘yes, you’ve got it,’” says Pugliese, a Ryerson journalism professor. “The fear is that students aren’t going to say anything, that they’re going to suffer over something they don’t need to suffer about.”

However, some students feel that the services their universities are promoting are not the solution to helping them with their mental health during the pandemic.

“If you’re having a breakdown, your first thought is not ‘Let me go online to the school wellness

portal,’” says Kenth.

Online classes are benefiting some students

Despite the many challenges that students have experienced in isolation, some students have

tried to look for ways to motivate themselves and force themselves to be more productive during these times.

“I’m lucky enough to say that I have benefitted from online learning. I enjoy classes now because I take the time to create my own schedule,” says Nyah Riviere, a second-year University of Toronto political science student. “I get some ‘me time’ and remove myself from my workspace.”

Some students think that facing less distractions from their peers has forced them to be more accountable to their studies and encourage them to work on themselves.

Singla is making it a point to network online at her school’s digital events, not only to network, but also meet other students.

“Before, attending an event was like an obligation but now everyone is looking forward to

meeting new people and getting to actually see new faces to interact with,” says Singla.

Waiting, and more waiting

Students sit on the steps at the Student Learning Centre, photo via Ryerson University 

As the pandemic continues to progress unpredictably, students are left wondering if they will

ever return back to the way things used to be before online learning took over.

Finding ways to cope with the new circumstances that COVID-19 has brought is important,\ not only to succeed during an online semester, but also to prioritize self care for personal wellbeing.

 Students like Kenth and Riviere suggest planning time to step away from computer screens and do whatever makes you feel connected to the outside world again. Whether that be scheduling time to chat with friends, re-introducing yourself to old hobbies, or getting your daily dose of Netflix.

Students are already stressed between the curriculum, facing online challenges, and worst of all

feeling like they are all alone in this, according to Dr. Hawke. 

Dr. Hawke, however, believes that students will get through this time.

“Youth are resilient and they’re going to find ways to make it work,” she says.