Mental health awareness week was celebrated across Canada from October 4 to 10. Through its mental health initiatives, the University of Toronto has shown its efforts to create a more inclusive and healthier environment for students and staff at the university, as well as the wider community. U of T encourages mental health awareness and is currently working on multiple projects to further support the student body.

Established in 1992 by the Canadian Psychiatric Association, mental health awareness week was created as a national education initiative to shed light on the realities of mental illness and promote mental health practices. Six months into physical distancing and isolation practices, mental health awareness and navigation are crucial to maintaining overall health and well-being in Ontario.

A research project led by U of T Ph.D. candidate Daniel Di Matteo, Professor Jonathan Rose, and Dr. Martin Katzman, studies how smartphones can monitor mental health by recording ambient noise. The multidisciplinary research team began their study by installing their app into participants’ phones. By activating the phones’ microphones, the app records ambient sound for 15 seconds, every five minutes.

The study tracked the changes in the audio volume of ambient sound throughout the day for two weeks, essentially mapping out participants’ mood against participants’ daily schedules. Through this data, researchers found that systematic and regular schedules were negatively correlated with symptoms of depression.

Although there are legal and ethical limitations in place for monitoring and collecting data from smartphones, some believe monitoring apps to be a promising discovery. This U of T app’s tracking can act as an early warning for people susceptible to mental illnesses by notifying family and friends.

In recent years, many studies have begun to look into the intersection of technology and medicine. In an interview with U of T News, Professor Rose spoke of this technology and medicine fields’ union when talking about his research colleagues.

“It’s a true partnership; they learn what’s possible with machine learning while we learn aspects of psychiatry and statistics,” stated Rose.

The U of T Office of the Vice Provost also introduced a new application to provide students with readily accessible mental health resources. Navi, short for “navigator,” is an app that offers chat-based assistance for students looking for mental health assistance and support. Navi utilizes IBM Watson Assistant, an artificial intelligence software, to build a language processing interface that can communicate and provide responses. This allows the app to operate 24/7, providing students with essential information regardless of time zones.

In the latest report of the Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, U of T identified a culture of caring and excellence as a goal they aspire to acquire within the university community. University administration believes Navi is a step towards achieving that goal. By making the app available publicly, it is not only accessible to students but also families, faculty, staff, and administrators.

Navi is entirely anonymous and does not require you to present any personal details to get information on available mental health resources. In fact, students are advised not to provide any personal or medical information about themselves or anyone else while using the app. Navi is also meant to act as the first line of help and will not provide any medical diagnoses or personalized treatments. Navi was officially launched to all students this past September.

During this semester of online learning and social distancing, it is essential to take the time to care for personal mental health. Students are encouraged to take advantage of the resources available to them through the university, such as the UTM Health and Counselling Centre, which holds virtual events and workshops each week to encourage mindfulness and self-care. With many studies and projects such as Navi underway, U of T is moving closer toward ending the stigma behind mental health and promoting healthy lifestyle practices.

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