Some students are concerned about mental health implications of no reading weeks
On September 16, 2020, the university announced changes to the winter calendar, including moving the start date to January 18, 2021 and replacing the February reading week with a two-day break that includes the Family Day statutory holiday. The winter break was also extended, allowing for students returning to campus from outside the Atlantic Bubble to self-isolate for two weeks. The fall term reflects similar changes as reading week is cancelled, and classes end December 4th.
Student responses to these changes have been mixed. “I am thrilled with the extended Christmas break,” said Nel Pedroso, a second year environmental studies student and residence assistant. “Although, for out-of-province students like myself, it may be challenging since some of us might be in self-isolation once again.”
First-year philosophy and women’s and gender studies student Sam Walsh is concerned about their mental health with an extended winter break, as recent family loss makes Christmas a difficult time at home. “But I do understand why they’re doing it in terms of having a buffer of two weeks at either end for students who are from afar,” they said.
Many students agree that the longer winter break is important to allow time for self-isolation. Lauren Whiteway, a fourth-year psychology and sociology student, is the co-lead of Mount Allison’s chapter of Jack.org, a national network of youth working to destigmatize mental health problems. Em Doucette, a third-year international relations student, is the chapter’s financial chair. Whiteway and Doucette collaborated on responses for an interview by email. “Given the outbreaks across Canada right now, this seems like the most reasonable decision,” they said.
However, there is some concern among students about the absence of a reading week in both semesters. Whiteway and Doucette believe that reading weeks are important, for both a student’s schoolwork and their mental health. “Mount Allison’s implementation of a fall reading week a few years ago was beneficial to students – in terms of both mental health and academics – as it gave them a week to give their brain a break, and return to their studies with renewed interest and energy,” they said. Anne Comfort, Director of Accessibility and Student Wellness, said: “Many students used that time to recharge, get caught up on work, [or] make appointments for some self-care.”
Pedroso uses his reading week for both leisure time and as a time to catch up on his studies. “Having no fall reading break is a concern for me, both as a student and residence assistant,” he said. “These breaks are here to give students a short hiatus. I have no idea how to feel or how this year will go.”
Walsh believes that the lack of a reading week in both semesters has the potential to make their first year very difficult. “I know a lot of people comment on [reading week] being a buffer time,” they said. They believe that these changes are particularly of concern to those who are disabled, chronically ill, or who already struggle with mental health, including themself. “We have to set up buffer days for when we don’t naturally have good days.” This will be much more difficult, Walsh said, when this buffer is not built into the calendar. They are concerned that the university has not effectively communicated what extra resources are available to students this year.
The uncertainties and unease brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has experts concerned about rising levels of mental health issues in Canada. “The concern our counsellors are seeing the most these days [is] loneliness,” said Anne Comfort, Director of Accessibility and Student Wellness. “The other major concern we are seeing is with processing all the loss that has occurred.” She notes that students have experienced loss in many ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the loss of loved ones.
Comfort said that staff are planning a virtual mental health and wellness fair for the middle or end of November. In the meantime, there are a number of things students, faculty, and staff can do to promote positive mental health. “It is important for professors, counsellors, and other resources to be prepared to face these struggles, and assist in creating safe coping mechanisms for students,” said Whiteway and Doucette. “Some professors have already planned not to hold classes that week.”
“I urge everyone to help each other, talk with friends, strike a conversation, and support one another to ensure wellness both physically and mentally.” said Pedroso. As an RA, he cares about the well-being of students in his house. “I make the best effort to check-in with students once a week just to see how they are doing.” Other students are planning ahead to avoid stress and burnout later in the term. “I’m hoping to avoid that by staying on top of things like final projects,” said Walsh. Comfort encourages students to reach out to their professors when their courses get hectic. “It would be very beneficial for students to plan ahead for their semester and to seek out help from their faculty when they see ‘log jams’ of work ahead,” she said.
For students interested in learning about how to help others struggling with mental health, Jack.org provides a resource called Be There (bethere.org). “The website takes you through steps that you can take if you think that someone you know may be struggling with their mental health,” said Whiteway and Doucette. “We highly recommend that you check this out.” Most importantly, students should be self-aware of their own mental health and take breaks when they are needed. “There is no blueprint on how to proceed or act during this time. The best we can do is help and be there for one another during this challenging time,” said Pedroso.
Students are encouraged to reach out to friends, family, and university resources when facing mental health concerns. Resources available to students include virtual counselling with the Wellness Centre ([email protected]), wellness planning with Maggie Brewer, the Mental Health and Harm Reduction Educator ([email protected]), the new wellness support program Navigate MtA (navigatemta.ca), and for students living on-campus, RAs, ADs, and dons. Students are also encouraged to access resources off-campus, such as 24/7 helplines like the CHIMO Helpline (1-800-667-5005) and the Kids Help Phone line (1-800-668-6868), available to anyone under 21.