Students struggling with addictions look online for support

More post-secondary students have been dealing with mental health and addiction issues during COVID-19

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Reported by Caroline Egan, Christi Walter and Veronika Khvoro  

B.C. post-secondary students appear to be experiencing more mental health and addiction issues related to isolation and stress during the pandemic.

A national survey from December 2020 showed that 60% of young Canadians aged 18 to 24 reported their mental health had deteriorated since March 2020. This suggests that addictions among young people are on the rise as well, since at least 20% of people with a mental illness have a co-occurring substance use problem, according to Canadian Mental Health Association.

In the policy brief published in June 2020, the association also confirmed that opioid overdoses have been on the rise during the pandemic. The ongoing public health emergency due to opioid-related overdose deaths in B.C. is compounded by COVID-19 pressures.

Addiction issues may undermine student chances of academic success. A 2016 study published in the U.S. showed that 40% of students dropping out of college had experienced substance abuse as one of contributing factors.

The Voice surveyed 24 students from Langara College, Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia and Capilano University about their mental health. The survey asked if students participated in any behaviours excessively. The answers ranged from alcohol and drugs to video games and social media platforms.

When asked if they used these behaviours as a coping mechanism, most said “yes.”

“I see video games as [an] escape and also a social mechanism through which I can meet and socialize with other people from different places. I don’t really buy things as a coping mechanism, it’s just bad money management if anything,” said one student.

Some admitted to using these coping mechanisms more since the pandemic began.

“Yes, because I’ve had fewer opportunities for connection and been more anxious and stressed out,” replied another student.

Counsellors speak up

Post-secondary counsellors are concerned about the way isolation from peers is affecting students.

“I think there are a lot of pieces to this we probably don’t fully understand,” said Cheryl Washburn, head of the counselling department at UBC.

As of fall 2020, UBC students had not been accessing counselling services as frequently as usual. Washburn believes the reason is the physical distance between students and mental health services.

Ravia Arora is the chair of UBC Mental Health Network, a student-led organization that works in mental health advocacy and education. Photo: Ravia AroraWhen students were on campus, the counselling department was more available as a resource. “[Students] could just walk into our office,” said Washburn. “Whereas now, they’re studying all over the world.”

According to the provincial government’s roadmap publication A Pathway to Hope, by 2019 B.C. already held the highest hospitalization record for mental health and addictions in Canada.

Langara College counsellor Tim Chambers also believes a prolonged lack of in-person support has an emotional impact.

“We’re social creatures,” he said. “So, we need those interactions where you see other people every day.”

Chambers said the college counselling department does encourage students to interact socially over Zoom, but this can’t replace the experience of being on campus every day.

“We talk about ‘protective factors’ such as socializing, support. So, seeing instructors and students at class every day, those relationships, those interactions, that’s known as a protective factor,” Chambers said.

According to Chambers, the uncertainty and the changing rules as the province tightens and loosens restrictions on social gatherings may also be contributing to students’ deteriorating mental health.

While post-secondary institutions don’t provide emergency mental health services or addiction services, they can refer students who are in an emergency situation to local specialized services.

“We are the first point of contact,” said Chambers.

UBC student mental health advocate Ravia Arora said before the pandemic there was already a gulf between post-secondary students and the services they need to access.

Arora said students would consistently go to her to find out about resources. “The pattern…was people just not knowing where to go, what to do, feeling awkward about it. Just a lot of lack of knowledge,” said Arora.

The pandemic has made it harder for students to find connections.

“The pandemic is just a whole new thing,” said Arora. “People don’t have a social life and that community support that they used to.”

Ravia Arora is the chair of the UBC Mental Health Network, a student-led group that organizes mental health workshops on campus. Photo: Ravia Arora

Washburn said the main reasons students reach out for help haven’t changed this year: it’s still depression and anxiety.

“Whatever they’re coming to counselling for…is absolutely complicated by and exacerbated by [the pandemic],” said Washburn. “It could be exacerbated by financial concerns, it could be isolation.”

Roots of addiction

Sara Fudjack, a UBC PhD student and founder of UBC Student Recovery Community, said isolation has remained the driving cause of addiction during COVID-19.

“Addiction is considered a disease of isolation, COVID or no COVID,” said Fudjack. “One of the reasons that overdoses often result in deaths is when people are using alone.”

“You think about COVID, which is causing people to isolate or just not have as many opportunities for interaction,” she said. “It just sort of adds to that isolation, which can be really dangerous.”

According to Fudjack, students living with addiction have been struggling since the pandemic hit. Recovery programs have largely gone online over this past year, while in the past students could have attended face-to-face meetings.

“When [students] start to find each other and connect, it can be life-changing,” said Fudjack. “You have this group of students you can relate to. If you’re struggling, they can understand the experience you’re going through.”

Fudjack said reaching out for help has become harder for students who live with roommates or family members.

“[It became] harder for them to connect with us because a roommate or their parents had no idea they were actually struggling with drugs or alcohol,” said Fudjack. “If you’re having to be around people who use substances in a way that’s dangerous or a trigger to your own experience, then not being able to distance yourself can be difficult for sure.”

Student Recovery Community UBC

Student Recovery Community at UBC is a peer-based support group for students who are struggling with alcohol, drugs or behavioural addictions like gaming. It is the first student community of its kind in Canada.

Fudjack started the group in 2019 when she came to UBC for her PhD.

Program coordinator Trevor Gray said it all had started with a coffee maker, snacks, and a few duffle bags. Every week, Fudjack and Gray would lug the duffle bags to a new room they booked for the meeting.

“So we started developing a community that way,” said Gray.

After securing funding from the university, Gray and Fudjack purchased a coffee bike. The bike would roll around campus, serving hot drinks and spreading awareness about the Student Recovery Community. Gray said they wanted to reach people who felt like they had no one to turn to.

“There are people who are struggling in their own ways and feeling isolated,” said Gray.

“That was just an opportunity to show people on campus that there are people who are here to support you and to support one another.”

Since classes went online last year, Student Recovery Community has been looking for new ways to reach UBC students.  Gray said that many students had found the group through Instagram, where he makes posts about their weekly events. In addition to social media, they have been doing presentations for other student groups on campus. Gray said UBC mental health counsellors and nurses also refer students to the Recovery Community.

“Really just trying to get creative and think about different people on campus and making connections with other groups in order to form in the larger community,” said Gray.

“People might come to us, and we might refer them to someone else who might be of benefit to them as well.”

Trevor Gray and Sara Fudjack operate the “coffee bike” on UBC campus. This photo was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: UBC Student Recovery Community

The weekly All-Recovery Meeting takes place every Tuesday on Zoom. Gray said the name is meant to show that it’s open to all forms of recovery.

More traditional addictions peer support groups, such as 12-step based Alcoholics Anonymous, encourage abstinence from addictive substances and behaviours. But the Recovery Community meetings are open both to those who abstain from use and those who practice harm reduction.

“We also had a large number of people who, you know, were maybe curious or were intimidated by the word ‘recovery,’” said Gray.

Fudjack and Gray designed the meeting format to be open-ended as a way to appeal to newcomers. For every meeting, they come up with three universal topics to discuss that both people in recovery and outside of recovery could relate to.

“The reason we have those topics is because going into a group like that can feel really intimidating,” said Gray.

“And it’s just a way for people to have something to speak about, so they don’t feel like they just need to, like, sit down and bare their soul. And people don’t even need to share if they don’t want to.”

Going online has helped the Recovery Community reach students who might not have showed up to an in-person meeting.  Gray said students who are afraid of being recognized by someone they know don’t have to use their real names on Zoom and can leave their cameras off.

“I think, in that way, it has offered an opportunity for people to engage and just check it out. Whereas it would feel maybe a lot riskier to walk into this room full of strangers.”

Gray said he would like to open meetings to students from other schools. The issue is being able to direct students to mental health resources like school counsellors if they need additional help. Because the Recovery Community doesn’t have ties to mental health services at other schools, for now the meetings are open to UBC students only.

Finding the connection with peers can be difficult for students struggling with addiction. According to Gray, university settings can be hostile to recovery, with many social events based around alcohol and drug use.

The Student Recovery Community provides a space where students can make friends without worrying about substance use.

“There’s an opportunity for people to develop supportive friendships with other people… in a way that is in line with how they’re wanting to live their lives,” Gray said.

Looking ahead

After the pandemic is over, Fudjack and Gray are planning to return to in-person meetings and introduce new events for the Recovery Community. But there will still be an online component.

“We have heard from people in our community that having the ability to just get out of bed and come to the meeting has been beneficial for them,’ said Gray. “So we’ll definitely carry that on moving forward.”

The word about the Student Recovery Community has spread to other Canadian universities. Gray said that representatives of UBC Okanagan had reached out to them for help with starting their own recovery community. Farther afield, University of Windsor in Ontario had also expressed interest in having its own peer-based support group for students.

“That would be great if everyone could just come together like that, but it’s still a fairly new thing in Canada,” Gray said.

Canadian universities are starting the process, but much work still needs to be done to combat high addiction rates among students. Fudjack said there needs to be more education and awareness of addiction issues in post-secondary settings.

“You think of all the folks students interact with on a day-to-day basis, even if it’s virtual: meeting with professors, meeting with other students, meeting with other staff,” said Fudjack.

“People that don’t understand what it’s like to struggle with this and be in university — that’s where the stigma continues and that’s where the education needs to happen. It’s the larger community understanding and starting to adjust their language and their behaviours to create environments that feel more inclusive.”

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