Student Affairs Office offers support as pandemic upends traditional learning
Posted on Friday, June 5, 2020
By Michelle Read
The demands of a medical school curriculum pose one of the biggest challenges a student may ever face. No one expected a pandemic, to boot.
One day, med students were learning face-to-face with hands-on experiences; the next, lecture halls emptied as everything went virtual.
“COVID-19 generates anxiety from the effect on the community, family members and friends. But students have added anxiety, stress and uncertainty surrounding the future of our medical education,” says third-year student and medical student council president Céline Sayed.
Dr. Kay-Anne Haykal, assistant dean of student affairs, says the Faculty of Medicine is helping students to cope by building on the already strong foundational support system provided in large part through the Student Affairs Office (SAO).
“Our students have shown to be extremely resilient during these challenging times,” she says.
COVID-19 brings disruption and stress
For pre-clerkship students (years 1 and 2), Dr. Haykal says the main stressors arose from moving quickly to an online curriculum and the anxiety of writing exams from home.
“Many accommodations were requested from students caring for family members at home, who don’t have an appropriate environment to study and to write an exam, or who have concerns about unstable internet access from remote areas,” says Dr. Haykal.
For clerkship students in year 3, anxiety stemmed from an interruption in their studies, the uncertainty of returning to clinical rotation, and the inability to organize their year 4 electives. For students in their final year, the challenge was associated with writing their Medical Council of Canada exam, and preparing the start of their residency in the middle of a pandemic.
“Some students are coping well by volunteering in their communities, taking up new hobbies and staying active,” says Ms. Sayed. “Some students, understandably, aren’t coping as well, and we’ve tried to ensure supports are in place for them—and the SAO is a great example.”
SAO adapts with services and supports
Sylvie Critch, who supervises the SAO team, says the office has implemented several new initiatives to respond to the issues brought forward by MD students. With the limits of physical distancing, all counselling is now done remotely by telephone or video.
“Our counsellors are working extra hard during the pandemic to accommodate every student’s request,” says Mrs. Critch.
SAO’s counsellors have developed self-care strategies for students on their website; and a student resources section lives on the MD program’s COVID-19 website with many resources ranging from self-care, financial support, social support and well-being, and physical well-being.
Virtual support options include “Side by Side,” a peer support program run in conjunction with the SAO to improve help seeking behaviours, reduce stigma, and provide non-judgmental, accessible and confidential support. Trained student volunteers listen, provide basic counselling, suggest resources and make referrals to proper services regarding mental health, loneliness, relationship problems and academic difficulties.
Students are also offered a weekly virtual peer support session with Dr. Haykal and SAO’s counsellors on various themes such as resilience, self-isolation, self-compassion, self-care, and managing stress and anxiety. Students may drop in to these optional sessions to discuss any general concerns during this pandemic.
To understand their specific struggles, Dr. Haykal says the SAO is finalizing a mandatory ‘wellness check during COVID-19’, to be distributed to medical students in all four years of the program to complete, in addition to their current Wellness Check Program in years 1 and 3.
“I understand that COVID-19 has affected the medical students’ lives in a unique and challenging way,” Dr. Haykal says. “Our goal is to offer appropriate tools, resources and services.”