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The entrance of the Peer Support Centre in the Student’s Union Building at the University of Alberta. Photo: Courtesy of the University of Alberta Peer Support Centre.

Student isolation highlights the value of peer support

As COVID-19 puts a halt on much of campus life, university peer support centres provide support to students experiencing isolation.

By Anusha Kav , in City , on December 12, 2020

Student-to-student counselling on college campuses is proving invaluable during the pandemic to help university students across Canada combat feelings of isolation say mental-health advocates.

Student counsellors are helping combat feelings of isolation by connecting students with other aspects of campus life, said Reema Joshi, a volunteer with the University of Alberta peer-support centre.

“We’re able to connect people to other avenues to target the isolation. We recommend other student services that they could utilize,” said Joshi. “It’s not just that one-hour talk, you’re also connecting them with other on campus organizations.”

Since these are often run by university student unions, the centres have an understanding of the various ways to get involved on campus that students may not know exist without being on campus in-person.

“The peer support centre can provide a safe, free, confidential space for students to share whatever is going on for them, which can be so important when students are feeling isolated.” said Devin Smith, program lead at the service.

Student feelings of isolation compounded

This type of connection is especially important right now, as university students are experiencing a unique set of mental-health struggles associated with being isolated. 

A study conducted in June on post-secondary students by the Canadian Alliance for Student Associations found that over 70 per cent of respondents reported they have felt stressed, anxious, or isolated due to the pandemic.

“It’s really common to see someone who’s dealing with loneliness, especially if they moved to university or moved to Alberta for university.” said Joshi. “They’re away from their family and all those types of feelings continue to compound. You have the situation where this perceived isolation is not even perceived; it’s actual reality. There’s an increase of loneliness happening with students that are going through school in the pandemic.”

An empty University LRT Station at the University of Alberta.

Making friends and socializing with classmates is a big part of what gets students engaged and motivated to attend classes, said Erin Barker, associate professor of psychology at Concordia University.

Barker emphasized that, before the pandemic, making connections relied heavily on informal conversations, club fairs and flyers on campus.  

“We’re moving workshops and things online, but everything can’t be fully re-created. So, I think that’s a really big challenge for university and college students and especially newer ones.”

“Peer support might be a really good level of support for individuals, because a big barrier for adolescents and young adults who are seeking care, is that sense of stigma or not really being sure who the right person to talk to is,” said Barker.

Barker said while peer support is not a formal counselling or health service, it is aimed at targeting isolation on campus.

“They’re all aimed at building connections and trying to reduce isolation.”