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Mask mandate on campus will be lifted on May 1. Photo: Rame Abdulkader/Fulcrum
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Counselling services remain primarily online, as Health and Wellness Centre is set to open on May 1

Over the course of the Winter 2022 term, the University of Ottawa has returned to campus in a bimodal format. 

As restrictions loosen around the country, universities have taken their time to follow suit, easing restrictions slower than the provincial governments. The U of O only recently announced plans to remove their campus-wide mask mandate on May 1 — once the winter semester ends. 

As campus begins to resemble a pre-pandemic world, counselling services provided through the university are still being offered primarily online. What have been the potential drawbacks and benefits to this format, and what might the future look like for mental health services online?

The Fulcrum spoke to two students who have used the online format of counselling at some point in the pandemic. They reported mostly positive experiences with virtual meetings. 

Teaghan Durant, a third-year French-to-English translation student, started using the counselling services in September 2021, and had her last appointment last month.

“I mean, personally, doing them online was helpful for me because I could keep my camera off. So, if I was fidgeting with something or I wasn’t looking directly at the camera, it was nice to kind of be able to just do that and talk freely,” she said.

Durant still feels some apprehension about going back in person with the threat of the virus.  

“I think I mean, if I had to choose one or the other, indefinitely, I would probably choose virtual. I feel like going to anything in person right now is really tough, let alone diving headfirst into a counseling session,” said Durant.

“The only other thing I’d add, I guess is that I would still definitely recommend it despite the challenges and stuff I’ve brought up. My counselor was fantastic,” she added.

Taamara Thanaraja, a third-year student in international development and globalization, used counselling services in her second year. She similarly had a good experience overall.

“I feel like the process for me was pretty quick. Like I got matched pretty quickly. And they also gave me the option to, like, choose if I wanted a person of color. And I thought that was really helpful,” she said.

At the time, Thanaraja was living at home due to courses being held online. She was going to an in-person counselor in her hometown and as such, experienced both modes. 

She appreciated the online mode for the convenience aspect, both in terms of privacy and transportation.

“I don’t mind it online, because of the convenience aspect, just especially, if transportation is hindered, let’s say, with the convoy and stuff. But, it depends what environment I’m in, because if I’m in Ottawa, and I’m just living with roommates, then I have more privacy than if I’m at home,” Thanaraja said.

She explained that she felt her in-person counsellor had more hands-on or interactive activities and resources. While she explains this might not have necessarily been due to the online format, she finds it to be an area the U of O could improve on.

“Sometimes, like when I compared to my other counsellor that I had outside of the U of O, they had different kinds of activities and not just printouts and stuff, but ways to quantitatively keep up with progress, instead of just asking, “Oh, how are you?,” So in that sense, I think that that might be something that could be worked on,” said Thanaraja. 

A spokesperson for the university explained to the Fulcrum in an email that they have seen an increase in engagement with their services and a change in the issues presented by patients. 

“We are noticing that the quantity of students requesting our service has increased and the complexity of presenting issues has also been noticed,” the statement reads.

The media relations contact at the University explained that through this new mode, they were able to connect with the student in a new way.

“It allowed for different types of connections and for providing support in different contexts as well. For example, I recall a counsellor telling me that she was working with a student affected by ADD and she helped him “organize his work desk” because through their virtual session, he could show her his room and desk,” the email explained.

Finally, the spokesperson noted the opening of a new Health and Wellness Centre in the Minto Sports Complex, on May 1.

“As of May 1, students will also be able to access our larger team of health professionals. Our counselling team will offer counselling services and a medical team will provide physical care.”