A wellbeing course offered by the University of Regina’s Online Therapy addresses the mental health needs of Saskatchewan post-secondary students

According to data from the World Health Organization, in any given year up to one third of post-secondary students meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental health disorder – the most common of these disorders being anxiety and/or depression. Yet despite the widespread occurrence of these mental health challenges, many students remain underserved in terms of treatment and support, owing to difficulties accessing Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and a desire to self-manage symptoms.

Last year, the University of Regina’s Online Therapy Unit introduced the UniWellbeing for Post-Secondary Students course, an internet-delivered wellness program aimed to address the prevalence of mental health disorders among Saskatchewan post-secondary students. Open to any college and university students in Saskatchewan who are eighteen years old or older, the free program consists of 4 self-directed lessons delivered over a 5 week program, as well as a weekly check in with a therapist either via secure messaging or phone.

The program is based on the principles of CBT, and aims to help students build a skill set for managing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. CBT is a goal-focussed form of therapy that examines the interaction between thoughts, behaviours, and feelings. It teaches concrete strategies for managing the unhelpful types of thoughts and behaviours that contribute to anxiety and depression.

Clinical Psychology doctoral student Vanessa Peynenburg is the coordinator of the UniWellbeing program. The program is also part of her PhD research study, conducted under the supervision of Dr. Heather Hadjistavropoulos, professor of psychology at the University of Regina and one of Canada’s leading scholars in Internet-delivered Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (ICBT).

‘One of the great things about CBT is that anyone can benefit from using the strategies’, says Peynenburg. ‘In the case of ICBT and the UniWellbeing Course, the added benefit is that it is offered in a flexible, accessible format. The post-secondary years are often characterized by uncertainty, and this has only been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that students will see UniWellbeing as a resource that can help them improve and maintain their wellbeing’.

Since March 2020 the program has served nearly 300 students between the ages of 18 and 44, both undergraduate and graduate, many of whom report that they had been experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress for over two years prior. User surveying done by the Online Therapy Unit has revealed a fifty percent reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression in students participating in the course. Further, ninety-three percent of participants reported being satisfied that the program was worth the time they spent in the process, and eighty-nine percent reported that they would recommend the course to a friend.

Says Peynenburg, ‘Students who have completed the UniWellbeing course comment on how they have applied the strategies to their academics and personal lives. Other students find comfort in knowing that they are not alone in their struggles, and also, that they can do something to improve how they are feeling. I think what students appreciate the most is the feeling of self-efficacy after taking the UniWellbeing course. They attribute the changes they have made to their own efforts and that is a powerful realization’.

The success of the UniWellbeing course is in line with other findings. Research suggests that internet-delivered Cognitive Behaviour Therapy has therapeutic outcomes similar to CBT delivered in a face to face setting, yet it mitigates certain barriers to accessing care.

The reach of the Online Therapy Unit in delivering internet CBT to the province has been a remarkable success story. During the last year alone it provided assessment and/or therapy to over 2600 clients through online programming, averaging 50 new clients per week. The UniWellbeing course is just one of the many programs offered by the OTU, which also include courses addressing anxiety and depression in adults, chronic health conditions (including chronic pain), chronic conditions resulting from spinal cord injury, challenges with alcohol use, and mental health programming for public safety personnel (offered via pspnet.ca).

Currently over 7200 Saskatchewan residents have received online CBT through the Online Therapy Unit, ranging in age from 18 to 88. Noteworthy is that many of those served, 37.3 percent, have reported experiencing severe symptoms of mental health disorder, and 31.7 percent have experienced suicidal thoughts. That the acute symptoms of many of these individuals may have gone untreated if not for online therapy underscores the crucially important service being provided in this province by the Online Therapy Unit.

‘Over the years, we have seen high rates of satisfaction from clients who have taken one of the programs offered by the Online Therapy Unit’, says Peynenburg. ‘More recently, we have seen a shift within the general public and service providers towards increased acceptance of online therapy. It’s exciting to see how these attitudes have changed because it suggests that more people see online therapy as an effective alternative to in-person services’.

APPLY: UniWellbeing for Post-Secondary Students course

WATCH: UniWellbeing coordinator Vanessa Peynenburg discusses the wellness program with CTV Regina

8 February 2021

Story by Kara Vincent