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Finding Balance During COVID-19: A Conversation with University of Toronto Psychiatrist-in-Chief, Dr. Andrea Levinson


Ashley Bo Zhang, Negin Rezaie

Can you briefly talk about your role at the U of T and your field of study/research and what drew you to this area of health and wellness?

As the Psychiatrist-in-Chief, I am responsible for psychiatric care, predominately at the St. George campus but I also have a tri-campus role working with the Vice-Provost of Students. I manage the psychiatric activities, oversee care delivery, assessments, and care; and I play a role consulting in risk management and crisis-driven work on campus. In my career, I have always had an interest in early intervention. Early on, I was very interested in the notion of how psychosis started and how it manifests in the context of mood issues. For a number of years, I ran an early intervention clinic for young people with new-onset bipolar disorder. As a clinician-scientist, my research has also examined the mechanisms of mood disorders.

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U of T Psychiatrist-in-Chief, Dr. Andrea Levinson

Over six years ago, I came into my current role, which presented a great opportunity to connect with post-secondary students to support them beyond the clinical arena. I feel very privileged because I am able to learn, firsthand, this intersection between mental health and the continuum of mental health to mental illness and how it interfaces with individuals engaging in learning. Another passion of mine is interdisciplinary care and education – thinking about how to work with other disciplines to create the best care model for our learners.

With the pandemic, this has definitely exacerbated existing challenges and difficulties to wellbeing and mental health, especially for students from marginalized communities. Can you touch upon some of the resources that the University is offering, in case our readers are not too familiar? Has U of T Health and Wellness taken recent measurements to support students during the pandemic?

Just to highlight a few of the resources:

  • Building Positive Mental Health workshops teach strategies to promote positive mental health during the pandemic.
  • Building Resilience through Self-Compassion workshops for graduate students
  • Health & Wellness peer support is a new drop-in virtual program where students can talk to trained peers online to find support and get help navigating resources on and off campus.
  • LivingWorks START is a 90-minute e-learning program that teaches learners to recognize when someone is thinking about suicide and steps to connect them to help.
  • The Connections Coaching Workshop Series is a three-part workshop series to help students develop connections and feel connected to others.
  • The Community Support Group is a peer-to-peer support resource for students to get to know and support each other, learn from experts, and connect with long-term support resources.
  • The Better Coping Skills is a four-part workshop series that can help students develop coping skills to thrive and better meet the demands of university, work and personal life.
  • Breathe Well and Sleep Well workshops teach techniques for relaxation and how to improve sleep hygiene
  • The Grief Support Sharing Circle is a support group for students who have experienced a death, as well as students experiencing anxiety around grief.
  • U of T My Student Support Program (U of T My SSP) which provides 24/7 ongoing text and phone support to all students, globally and in 146 languages, and is available as an app.
  • The Health & Wellness Newsletter: Subscribe to this bi-weekly St. George campus newsletter and receive news, information and updates
  • Health & Wellness Peer Support Service: Access drop-in support from a trained Peer Supporter online on Wed, Thurs, and Fri in a safe virtual space. 

Moreover, there is something new and exciting that I was involved in, which is a partnership between Student Life and IMB, and that is Navi, a new online confidential tool that helps students navigate mental health resources at U of T and make decisions about seeking support (

What are some healthy habits that students should consider adopting in order to tackle the uncertainty and anxiety that accompanies living in a pandemic?

There is so much out there in terms of advice - it is important to think about what works for you to stay both informed and connected. When most of us are separated right now and not naturally connected to campus, this can be through academic platforms like the Health and Wellness website or social media. That said, it is also about finding the right balance, moderating our use of these social platforms, and knowing when to take a break from the news and pandemic updates, so we don’t get overwhelmed. Practicing good sleep hygiene and promoting regularity in our sleep can also have a positive influence on our mental health. However, with students being in different time-zones and having online classes and graduate students on staggered schedules, this can definitely be challenging. By developing a mindfulness routine and trying to limit screen time in the evenings, these may be excellent steps in helping wind down before bedtime. Finally, we should maintain our physical health through healthy eating and exercise. With COVID-19, there is evidence that substance use is on the increase, and so doing some self-monitoring and becoming more aware of one’s use and possible triggers of use can be helpful during this time. If issues do persist with sleep or difficulties around nutrition, appetite, energy, or focus, definitely do reach out and engage with your primary care physician.

With social distancing and self-isolation being prominent guidelines during COVID-19, what are ways that students can feel connected to their peers and maintain that sense of community?

Using online platforms may be very helpful for students to stay connected with their peers. Considering that in-person activities may not be resuming right away because of the ongoing pandemic, it would be beneficial for students to maintain their social connections through creative ways. From holding online game nights and doing virtual art projects to organizing virtual group study sessions, students can stay in touch with their friends and family to maintain a sense of community during these unprecedented times. That said, after a long day of online classes and virtual meetings, students may understandably become weary of online platforms and so finding that balance is key!

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Are there any specific challenges and unique areas of difficulty that you believe students, specifically graduate students, face when it comes to mental health during the pandemic?

Uncertainty about the trajectory or progress of the graduate project, ambiguity about future careers and potential career shifts, and financial burdens are all inherent issues pertaining to graduate students. I believe that many of the issues that graduate students faced prior to COVID-19 have been accentuated during the pandemic. While the fabric and context of the research project may dictate the degree to which you are impacted, the pandemic has brought about many obstacles and changes. Furthermore, within the graduate body, it is important to recognize that international graduate students and other more vulnerable students, including racialized students, Indigenous students, students with prior mental health disorders, students with a disability, those with greater income insecurity, those with unstable living situations and many others. Not only has COVID-19 put students at increased risk of negative health, economic and social outcomes now and in the future, but also the pandemic has highlighted the pre-existing inequities in access to health care, housing, income and social supports that exist.

Personally, in your own life, what are some things you have started introducing into your daily routine during this pandemic? And what are some things that you are looking forward to post-pandemic?

With the pandemic and working from home, obviously we all have latitudes now but in my own life, I try to stick to my pre-COVID practices by waking up and sleeping around the same time and trying to maintain a self-care routine. For example, I continue to try and do a little exercise before work (even if it is a quick walk around the block), go for regular walks with our dog, stay connected with friends on zoom when I can, and spend time unwinding with something relaxing and creative, either cooking, baking, or watching movies with my family. I also have responsibilities with my children, who previously had in-person classes at school, so travelling to school helps maintain that sense of routine. Currently, they are home in on-line school due to the lockdown, so I support them with that. During these times, practising being gentler on oneself and others, and practicing self-compassion and gratitude. I am trying to be more appreciative of the benefits that working from home brings, such as saving on the commute time! And as for what I’m looking forward to post-pandemic? I look forward to seeing my friends and extended family and to attending live theater shows - I have an arts background and I love live music!