A crowd of roughly sixty people gathered at the William G. Davis Building this past Thursday for the Mental Health Town Hall hosted by the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU).
The event was meant to provide a place to “share thoughts, concerns, and recommendations about mental health on campus,” according to the UTMSU Facebook page.
The Town Hall featured five panelists, each with a stake in improving mental health on campus. The event opened with a short speech from each person, where they detailed the challenges they faced and measures being taken towards helping students with mental illness.
The presentation then transitioned into an open discussion, where the panelists fielded questions and heard out criticisms and suggestions from attendees. Afterwards, the panelists were asked to leave, and the event moderators announced a closed discussion, encouraging people to share their personal experiences with mental illness.
The event closed with a series of guided questions from the hosts with the goal of receiving feedback on how mental health services on campus could be improved.
“Ontario’s mental health system is not well,” said panelist Andrea Carter, assistant dean of student wellness and support & success, in her opening speech.
As assistant dean, Carter is responsible for supporting all non-academic aspects of student life. Despite facing systemic challenges, she stated progress is being made. She described several new programs aimed at improving student mental health, including a “wellness hub” in the Davis Building where students can drop in at any time, as well as a partnership program with UTM Athletics that pairs students with a personal trainer and counsellor.
Fiona Rawle, an associate biology professor and associate dean of undergraduate, used her time on the panel to highlight the role of teachers in ensuring student well-being.
“Through smart course design and deliberate syllabus design, we can help address [mental health issues],” said Rawle, describing opportunities to improve teaching staff’s mental health training.
Rawle cited harsh assignment deadlines and unequitable extension policies as mental health “pressure points” found on course syllabi.
Similarly, panelist Abda Schumann spoke about the role of graduate students and teaching assistants (TAs) in the mental health equation. According to Schumann, who is a graduate student and mobilization officer for CUPE 3902, students like him face many problems that lead to mental health issues like massive workloads, uncertainty of employment, and lack of proper teaching training.
He went on to argue that the decline in the teaching quality of mental health for TAs could in turn create mental health problems in students. Schumann also noted the potential for TAs to reach otherwise isolated students with mental health issues. He said that with proper training, a TA could be able to help an at-risk student that wouldn’t seek help by themselves.
The Canadian Federation of Students Ontario (CFS-O) representative, Kayla Whyler, was also one of the panelists. She discussed the CFS-O’s “My Mental Health Matters” campaign, created in collaboration with students from across the country.
“The campaign calls for mental health resources that are accessible, diverse, and intersectional,” Whyler said.
The campaign’s mandate has already seen success. In 2018, the Ontario government invested $17 billion dollars into mental health and addiction initiatives across the province. But Whyler states this seemingly large investment is only a small step towards the goal of the campaign.
“This investment is actually a rather small drop in the bucket [in regard to] what needs to be done,” said Whyler. “We need action from our campus community and commitments from our administration.”
UTMSU president Atif Abdullah was the fifth panelist at the event. Abduallah encouraged attendees to provide suggestions on how to better student mental health support on campus and listed several policy adjustments the UTMSU was pushing for in order to decrease pressure on students, such as a limit on lateness penalties and a decreased reliance on doctor’s notes for exceptions or extensions.
“You shouldn’t need to pay $120 dollars to prove you can’t come to school,” said Abdullah when describing the purpose of the self-assigned sick note that requires no doctor note and is currently in the process of being implemented at UTM.
The five panelists faced some tough questions during the open discussion section of the event. A recurring topic was the lack of awareness of campus mental health services.
“When I go on the UTM website, there’s barely any mention of mental health services anywhere,” said Ibbi Siabzawari, a third-year linguistics student.
“We need better representation of what services are available,” Zoe Virola, a fifth-year in biology and psychology, agreed. “I only found out about accessibility services from them asking for volunteer note takers.”
Abdullah reaffirmed Siabzawari’s statement. “I agree that it’s not well advertised,” he said. Abdullah assured attendees that making sure students know help is available, both on campus and online, is a top priority of the union.
Andrea Carter acknowledged Sibzawari and Virola’s concerns as well, noting that the current practice of “bombarding [students with mental health resources] at the start of the semester doesn’t help.”
She mentioned several ongoing efforts to increase awareness including the My SSP (My Student Support Program) app, which lets students call or chat with a counsellor anytime in any language with a mobile app. Carter noted the importance of using the same mediums that students do when trying to reach at-risk individuals.
“We strive to assess and evaluate what works and what doesn’t,” Carter said in reference to the many mental health projects being introduced on campus and online. “We’re very happy to be included in this conversation tonight, because it is very important for us to hear from you.”