A mental meet-up

Rendezvous with Madness' program aims to use art to educate and raise awareness about mental health issues

A mental meet-up

One in five children under the age of 18 have a diagnosable mental health issue. 70 to 75 percent of mental illnesses appear before the age of 20. Only one in six have access to the treatment they might need.

MEDIA PHOTO

MEDIA PHOTO

All of these are reasons that youth mental health is an important topic of discussion, according to child psychologist Dr. Marshall Korenblum. He was speaking at the Youth Mental Health Symposium on the last day of Rendezvous with Madness, a six day festival showcasing films from Canada and abroad with a focus on mental health.

“The goal of the festival is to sort of expose people to mental health and to decrease stigma, eliminate discrimination and prejudice that goes toward a lot of people with mental illness and addiction,” said program manager Jeff Wright in an interview with The Varsity. The festival is presented by Workman Arts, a local organization that provides training and opportunities for artists with mental illnesses.

While the festival explored a variety of angles and perspectives on mental health, it was bookended by art representing the experiences of children and adolescents.

The opening night was a screening of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12, a startling and engrossing film about a foster care facility. The main character, Grace (Brie Larson), herself a survivor of abuse and her own mental health challenges, sees much of herself in new charge, Jadeyn, and goes to great lengths to reach out to her. The talented ensemble cast brings each characters’ story to life, creating a highly relatable and human portrayal.

Saturday afternoon’s symposium featured a pair of films, both documentaries, of treatment facilities and the experiences of the young people who go through them. Echoes of Short Term 12 were apparent in Allan King’s Warrendale, despite the latter having been made almost 50 years prior. A documentary filmed for the
CBC — which for decades refused to air it ­—  Warrendale is an observational look at the treatment centre in Etobicoke, showing reactions of the children and the attempts of the staff to restrain and console them. In a subsequent discussion, Korenblum  pointed out that it shares many themes with Short Term 12, and the other films show “how much has changed and how little has changed” in the field of mental health in the past 50 years. The second film, Nuria Ibañez’s The Naked Room, continues with the theme of emotional realism by presenting a series of interviews with children in a mental health facility in Mexico. The camera remains trained on each child’s face, even when their parents are the ones speaking, revealing every reaction and creating an remarkable amount of empathy.

The whole festival aimed to instill empathy in its audience members, as emphasized in the panel discussions following each screening designed to create conversations about mental health. “If people aren’t that familiar with mental health issues to come see a film, they might have thoughts or questions they might want to ask, and we sort of give that platform for them to ask and we have people there who can answer better than going home and googling,” said Wright.

Rendezvous with Madness certainly succeeded in making me think more consciously about mental health. Statistically, six of the 30 people on the streetcar ride home with me deal with these kinds of issues on a daily basis. I thought about what Wright said about what he learned while programming the festival: “You see people in the street and it’s a lot more evident how many people are affected by it, and that’s just visibly. And to think that so many people are suffering from mental illness without it being a visible thing, and maybe the stigma or prejudice that goes towards people with mental illness, not being able to speak about it or get help.”

Rob Ford controversy distracts from Remembrance Day ceremonies

The mayor's appearance at Old City Hall detracted from the solemn afternoon

Rob Ford controversy distracts from Remembrance Day ceremonies

On Monday, November 11, veterans, members of the community, and politicians gathered in front of Old City Hall to pay respect to those who fought in the Canadian military in the wars and missions that have taken place since the beginning of the twentieth century. However, based on the reaction of some who attended the ceremony, attention was not fully devoted to honouring the country’s war veterans — Rob Ford’s presence was seen by many as the event’s main spectacle.

In order to continue a long-standing tradition, the mayor attended the ceremony and gave a brief speech to honour veterans on behalf of Torontonians. Despite the content of his speech, some in the crowd decided to take this time to express their disapproval of the mayor: he was greeted with boos upon arrival.

Whether or not the mayor should have attended the ceremony wearing the Mayor’s Chain is another question. In the end, Ford decided that he would put his embarrassing issues aside and take part in the Remembrance Day ceremonies, just as mayors before him have done for decades. His presence or absence at the ceremony was up to him alone.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, reporters flocked to Ford looking for answers to their questions about his personal life and his intentions for the future, in light of the confirmation of his drug use and the release of a video of him yelling vulgar and threatening slurs.

Those who attended the ceremony and decided that it was an appropriate time for them to vocalize their disapproval for the mayor were mistaken. Remembrance Day is the one day of the year where the community gathers together to honour those who have fought and fallen for the well-being of the country.

To erase the boundary between this day of honouring, remembering, and mourning and current news concerning the mayor’s personal habits blurs the meaning of the day and, puts veterans in a subordinate place to the highly-entertaining, disappointing, and controversial life of a man who unfortunately holds the position of mayor. This Remembrance Day, those who spent a solemn ceremony focusing on Ford’s behaviour disrespected veterans in an unforgivable way.

 

Elizabeth Benn is The Varsity‘s Sports Editor.

Undergraduate research opportunities take learning beyond classroom

Research opportunities abound for U of T’s undergraduates

Undergraduate research opportunities take learning beyond classroom

As a science student, it can be easy to forget where all of the theories and equations encountered in class come from. The long days of trial-and-error, of running experiments, and of chance discoveries can be hidden by the passage of lecture slides. Going behind the curtain and participating in the actual research process can be extremely rewarding for an undergraduate student; thankfully, a research-intensive university provides many opportunities to do so.

WILLIAM AHN/THE VARSITY

WILLIAM AHN/THE VARSITY

Participating in an undergraduate research project is an early opportunity to be exposed to the inner workings of your chosen field. An “early opportunity where an undergrad can be exposed to research in the lab, outside the classroom, would be a good experience to understand more what [the field] is,” said Armando Marquez, undergraduate counsellor of the Department of Chemistry, “and possibly develop that interest so that … students would continue and do research, go to graduate studies, do a lot more research down the line.”

It can be hard to know if a research career is right for you unless you try it, and the wide range of opportunities at the University of Toronto make undergraduate years the perfect time to give it a whirl.

The experience can certainly boost a resume. “When students get involved with this, it gives them a better opportunity as an experience, that when they go out, when they finish their education here, it makes them a very competitive person when they do apply to graduate studies or work,” said Marquez.

Research InfoYet even if you decide to apply to work in industry, professional school, or change fields entirely, a summer or semester spent doing research provides benefits that will stay with you for years to come.

Some of these wide-ranging benefits are detailed in a document by the Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology (LMP) department, and include gaining important lab skills, learning how to design an experiment, critically analyzing data, and communicating results. Students gain a deeper understanding of course material and will also have a wide-range of work opportunities after graduation. These important skills can also be taken back to the classroom.

Not only can research enhance scientific knowledge, it can also contribute to one’s personal development. “One of the opportunities for the students who get involved in research is that they are able to network with the grad students [and] with the faculty, and are given the opportunity to do presentations,” said Marquez, adding that, “students who go through this develop a more critical way of thinking instead of just what is fed to you in the classroom.”

Ishita Aggarwal, campus ambassador for the pan-discipline Undergraduate Awards program, pointed out that doing research can affect your world view. “When you participate in research, even at the undergraduate level, you really are able to better interpret claims that are made, not only in the academic setting, but also in popular media and everyday life,” she said. “I think it’s really important not only to be a producer of research, but also to be a better consumer of research.”

U of T offers a wide variety of opportunities for undergraduates to do research, including the second-year Research Opportunity Program (ROP) courses and summer research positions aimed at second- and third-year students. Each department awards positions differently:some require an application to the department as a first step, whiles others require the interested student to email potential supervisors before applying.

In the Department of Chemistry, students submit a résumé, cover letter, and application to the department before the supervisor selection process. “The competition is so fierce that we could probably have between 150 to 200 applications for an average of 25 positions,” said Marquez, who then insisted that he encourages all students to apply, as even the application process is beneficial to them. By applying, he says, students learn how to present themselves professionally on paper, an important post-graduation skill.

If one application is not successful, students should remain positive and keep looking, even if that means investigating opportunities outside of U of T ­— Toronto’s hospital system is a great place to start, for example.

According to Aggarwal, persistence is key: “One of the things that really prevents undergrads from getting involved in research is that they don’t know how and they’re just too scared … the key is not to get discouraged … if you keep attempting to contact the people whose research you’re genuinely interested in, eventually you’ll hear an affirmative answer. But you need to keep trying.”

Toronto gamers play to give SickKids Hospital an “Extra-Life”

Twenty-five-hour eSports marathon raises funds on behalf of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals

Toronto gamers play to give SickKids Hospital an “Extra-Life”

A team of Toronto gamers hosted a 25-hour gaming marathon in support of SickKids Hospital this weekend. The Digital Kids Extra-Life Event began at 9:00 pm on Saturday and ended 25 hours later on Sunday evening. Extra-Life is a larger North-American charitable organization made up of eSports enthusiasts in support of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. The annual Extra-Life game day event is in its fifth year. Last year, the event raised nearly $2 million worldwide.

kdsDigital Kids organizer Gabriel Swanson ­— or GZSwanson, as he is known in the gaming community — is a SickKids alumnus. He spent a large part of his childhood at SickKids in treatment for haemophelia. In a reddit post made in the r/Toronto subreddit, Swanson describes the spirit of the event: “The hearts and minds of the gaming community have come together to raise funds for local children’s charities. The entirety of the gaming community, comprising of tens of thousands of gamers, bring together their various talents and skills spanning from consoles to tabletop games and everything in between to save lives and make a difference in their communities. Extra-Life gives gamers and spectators alike [a chance] to show that they have heart.”

The main event was a StarCraft 2 showmatch between Hendralisk and MaSa, two top professional eSports players in Toronto. Swanson provided commentary. There were also Xbox stations and pcs set up for tournaments and casual gaming. Microsoft provided door prizes, and refreshments were available to encourage mingling among the local gaming community.

In an interview with The Varsity, Ric H. Prager, a producer of the event, spoke to the passion shared by the gaming community as a true strength of the event. “The motivation behind Digital Kids is a reflection of the intense passion behind SickKids and the equally intense passion in the gaming community, specifically our experience with competitive gaming or eSports,” he says. “SickKids has saved the lives of many Toronto children, including members of the active gaming community we have here. It’s a way for us to give back, and a way to showcase the passion behind the competitive gaming community, and how it can be leveraged for a great cause.”

playthroughvideo-2

In the future, gaming may have a more direct connection with helping children in the process of healing, says Prager. “Ken Silva, our director, is an eSports veteran, working gaming events across North America and South Korea for the past few years. He’s been in talks with SickKids for a few months now, and really sees a space for video games within the hospital. Competition is a natural part of childhood, and these games can give a great positive outlet to some of the kids that need it the most.”

For more information on Extra-Life visit www.extra-life.org. You can donate to Extra-Life through their donation portal. Follow Team Digital Kids on twitter at @DigitalKids2. 

University of Toronto announces new mental health committee

University of Toronto announces new mental health committee

Following a $27 million commitment to the mental health of post-secondary students by the provincial government in March 2013, the University of Toronto has revealed to The Varsity its intention to develop a campus-wide mental health strategy.

The Provostial Committee on Mental Health — to be chaired by vice-provost, students Jill Matus — was set to be formally announced in November. The Varsity spoke with key university administrators over several weeks to discuss the proposed composition and purpose of the panel.

The committee, created by assistant vice-president, student life, Lucy Fromowitz and Health and Wellness executive director Janine Robb, seeks to establish a framework to “connect the suite of counselling, psychiatric, and health services offered by the university at a tri-campus level.” It is expected to include “faculty deans, senior staff, UTSC and UTM administrators, academic success workers, the university’s psychiatrist-in-chief Andrea Levinson, and members of accessibility services,” in addition to an undergraduate and graduate representative.

Lucy Fromowitz, U of T's assistant vice-president, sudent life. TREVOR KOROLL/THE VARSITY

Lucy Fromowitz, U of T’s assistant vice-president, student life. TREVOR KOROLL/THE VARSITY

Similar frameworks were organized at Queen’s University and Brock University in recent years.

Fromowitz, who is responsible for Hart House and 12 distinct departments under the Student Life umbrella, said that the committee seeks to better evaluate gaps in the current system. “We can establish quantitative metrics to ensure that all students are getting equal access to mental health services and so that we can [address] any needs that aren’t being met,” she said.

Robb, a four-year veteran of Health and Wellness who comes from an extensive public health background at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), outlined the committee’s proposed structure: “We hope to have five working groups that can develop policy proposals to send up to the larger committee for approval. These will focus on selected issue areas like awareness & anti-stigma, education & training, curricula & pedagogy, services & programs, and policies & procedures,” she said. She added that while faculty deans responded optimistically to the proposed committee, not all staff members share this outlook. “This policy development process is also an attempt to break into a group that has been tougher to breach. What we’re talking about here are the staff that are maybe less empathetic towards those with mental illness. Those that think mental illness is best treated by pulling their socks up, or sucking it up. Clearly, [mental illness] is a bigger issue than it was 20 years ago. Our staff and faculty need to know how to work with those who face these challenges,” she said.

Fromowitz pointed out improvements to mental health service delivery over the last five years. “We recognize that it is fundamentally an issue of demand. Students, who certainly deserve to be here but who normally wouldn’t have had the ability to attend university in the past, now have access to the right pharmacology and health services. We as a university have embraced this reality and have attempted to develop a comprehensive plan that puts their needs first,” she said.

Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is a key mental health service at U of T. Part of the goal of the provostial committee will be to assess challenges faced by CAPS and make proposals for its improvement. Student leaders have repeatedly critized CAPS in past years, particulary for long wait times for students who face acute mental health challenges. “Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) used to [work] on a first-come-first-serve basis. This was not a good way to operate because students with acute mental health needs wouldn’t get access to the help they needed. Our drive has been to ensure that every new student who goes through the service gets a triage process so that we can identify the most suitable level of care required,” said Fromowitz.

In response to these concerns, Woodsworth student Tom Gleason worked with Robb and the Health and Wellness Staff to develop Peers are Here, a student group committed to peer mentorship and campus support systems. Fromowitz is encouraged by these student innovations. “This is why we love Peers are Here. We don’t want to medicalize or stigmatize stress and anxiety. It is normal for students to face this at school. Building a community that can normalize it and help teach students to cope with it is essential,” she said.

The university has applied to the aforementioned government innovation fund’s second round of proposals. Robb describes the plan as a collaborative partnership between U of T, Ryerson, OCAD, and Sheridan College to develop an “early alert system.” The goal of this will be to feature “a series of self-report measures which you would score. Providing this individualized feedback package allows the university to catch people who might be sliding and help them build on their strengths for the future,” she said. The government is expected to announce the grants sometime in the coming month.

Fromowitz concludes her interview with a reflection on the nature of mental health on campus. “Too often, I think, the situation is presented as a crisis. Let’s really take a look at this. We need to measure what student needs are and assess where gaps might exist before we feed any more into this rhetoric,” she said.

Mental Health Awareness Month begins at U of T

Education event to include Hart House brunch, movie screening

Mental Health Awareness Month begins at U of T

Another midterm season is underway at U of T, as is evident from campus libraries on every corner filling with students. It might not immediately be natural to think or talk about this stressful time from a mental health perspective, but that perspective does bring questions: how all of us will stay well during the cycle of evaluation after evaluation? How do we deal with the academic, social, spiritual, and emotional problems that follow us throughout the year and during the remainder of our lives?

ERIC CHUNG/THE VARSITY

ERIC CHUNG/THE VARSITY

U of T’s Health and Wellness Services recognises this difficult time of the year by setting October as Mental Health Education Month to promote the steps we can take to improve our emotional and mental well-being. Geared towards the goal of creating a more mental-health aware and oriented student body, this campaign focuses on various interactive events that aim to help students ease stress and learn to cope with challenges that the average student faces.

This year, Mental Health Awareness Month at U of T is themed on the message “Build On Your Strengths.”

“This is a ‘positive psychology’ way to talk about mental health, and is well-researched.  It focuses on strengths, skills, and assets that students (and all people) already have, such as resiliency, support from friends and family, and strategies to manage stress,” says Dan Johnson, a community health coordinator with Health & Wellness. A major event this year will be an Unplugged Hour, which will occur on October 10 from 12 pm to 1 pm. During this event, which is similar to Earth Hour, participants will change up their routine by “unplugging” from cellphones, laptops, and social media. This event will encourage students to seek alternative modes of stress relief such as yoga, person-to-person interaction, reading, and socialization.

Some additional events and campaigns that may be worth checking out this month include the New College Mental Health Awareness Fair, as well as a $5 healthy brunch at Hart House on October 27, which will focus on the role food plays in mental health and services that are accessible to students.  As well, an October 22 showing of The Happy Movie will provide students with a look at this widely sought-after emotion; the showing will occur at Victoria College’s Goldring Centre from 4:30 pm to 7:30 pm.

But how exactly do we define mental health? When gauging our personal mental health, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has recommended that we look at ourselves in the light of positive psychology and ask: can I bounce back from a difficult life situation and move forward without losing optimism in the process? Can I still enjoy life in the moment and still juggle my priorities without worrying about the things I can’t change? Can I feel and express a range of emotions and adapt to solve any problems associated with them? The definition of mental health is beginning to take a more holistic approach, according to CMHA, that views excellent mental health less as the absence of a disorder and more as a psychological and behavioural evaluation of the whole person.

To place issues of mental health into perspective: a 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey on mental health conducted by Statistics Canada reported that youth between the ages of 15 to 24 had the highest prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders, and substance-abuse-related problems.  The same survey revealed that approximately 2.8 million people, or 10.1 per cent of the population aged 15 or older, have experienced at least one symptom of a mental or substance-abuse disorder.

The refugee camp on campus

Friends of MSF hosts fifth annual outreach event

The refugee camp on campus

On Friday, the lawn in front of Hart House suddenly became embroiled in intense political conflict. Over 150 people were displaced from their homes, nearly all of whom were Toronto students. Humanitarian aid workers were present to battle the lack of essential medicine and to attempt to remedy the dire living conditions.

If the last few sentences were startling, then the fifth annual mock Refugee Camp in the Heart of Campus, organized by Friends of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has achieved its goal. The purpose of the event was to raise awareness about the need for humanitarian aid in places such as refugee camps. Friends of MSF organized a daytime event for secondary students, and many U of T students gathered in the evening for a “night out for a cause.” The student refugees generated by the events were in no danger, but they were certainly prompted to reflect on the situations of those who are.

A majority of MSF’s work is focused on refugee camps. Health systems often collapse when conflicts arise — for example, the UN estimates that the conflict in Syria generated as many as two million refugees. MSF sends aid workers to give emergency aid and work to restore the health system. Friends of MSF works from campus to support those aims by promoting awareness and raising funds.

Trish Newport addressed the high school students during the day, and Dr. James Maskalyk shared stories and wisdom from his field experience with U of T students during the night out for a cause. Maskalyk said that the Mock Refugee Camp “[evokes] the spirit of why MSF exists, and that is to continue to create a space that is safe for people, no matter who they are, no matter where they live, no matter how far away they happen to be from the University of Toronto. MSF … will continue to evolve and continue to find new ways to make the work that we do reach the world’s most vulnerable people. So to have the University of Toronto, and its students, and readers of this paper participate ­— however you happen to do that­ — it’s what keeps that idea living. And the more it can grow, the more it can impact all of us.”

As students walked to and from their Friday classes along the path that bisects the Hart House lawn, many of them paused to wonder why there were tents set up. Those who stopped to find out surely left with a more personal concept of current world issues, as well as look at science used to directly benefit people. This is a view of science that is refreshingly constructive in today’s technological climate — which at times can feel like a constant arms race. Ultimately, this is why Friends of MSF exists: to let people experience the situations that are beyond the reach of our eyes, but not of our influence.

The mock refugee camp is an important part of the work of Friends of MSF; to gain an insider perspective on the event, The Varsity spoke with Donald Wang, executive director of the U of T chapter of the organization:

 

The Varsity: The mock refugee camp is very important in raising awareness, but there’s still going to be this disconnect between us, living in Toronto and leading ordinary lives by North American standards, and people who are actually in refugee camps. What can be further done to bridge that gap?

Donald Wang: This year, we are doing a role-playing activity about TB medicine. Each group has five people, and each person has a different personal background. It could be a single mom earning money to support her two children, or there could be a young girl…  all of them have TB. They try to determine who should receive the only available drug dose. For example, they could want to give it to the mom because she’s earning money to support her children, but at the same time there’s also a promising young student; you don’t want her to die that young. Hopefully, when they’re discussing these issues among themselves, they’re able to realize the complexity of the situation as well as the challenges that are actually faced by refugees daily with respect to drugs and other limited resources.

 

TV: Does the mock refugee camp, or do other opportunities from Friends of MSF, give concerned members of the public opportunities to respond directly to humanitarian crises?

DW: Yes, definitely. One example that comes to mind is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It is a trade agreement that allows pharmaceutical companies to extend their patents overseas, which delays the onset of generic drugs. Primary pharmaceutical companies invest money to develop a drug for tuberculosis and HIV, and then they get an extended 10-year monopoly for that drug so that nobody else can generate revenue from its production. Later on, when the patent expires, the generic companies can make the same drug, but they sell it at a much cheaper price. MSF primarily uses generic drugs; they also do not accept donations from pharmaceutical companies.

If this treaty is signed, it’s going to be quite detrimental to humanitarian aid work, because the cost of pharmaceuticals is going to increase. That’s why they’re calling for a petition [to Prime Minister Harper]. Another important point is that President Obama is calling this treaty the blueprint for other international treaty agreements. If this gets passed, it sets a precedent for pharmaceutical companies to argue for extended patents. We’re planning for the entire Canadian Friends of MSF group to have a cooperation where we get people more aware of this treaty and get them to sign the petition. MSF is pushing this campaign for generic drugs to come faster so that they can be distributed to people.

 

TV: How does awareness of situations like refugee camps shape peoples’ experiences?

DW: As the mock refugee camp, we can only do so much to actually simulate the refugee experience, so we add a personal experience by inviting real MSF experts.

My favourite example is Trish [Newport]. She has been on five missions with MSF, and she always tells this really fascinating story: when she was working in a village in Congo, one night people heard the Lord’s Resistance Army coming. Everyone just packed little things and started running for two, three days straight. I remember Trish said that she asked one of the villagers, “Where do we stop and take a rest?” And the villager responded, saying, “When the Lord’s Resistance Army comes, you don’t rest. You just go, run as fast as possible.”

Initially, what I thought of a refugee camp is just that people are displaced from their homes; that’s all I read in the papers. The stories that [Trish Newport] told really added a personal dimension, and also demonstrated some of the psychological trauma that has been experienced. That makes this whole mock refugee camp much more personal.

We want to provide perspective for people. We’d like to present the facts and the experience to show that there is another perspective to refugee camps, and that there is the need for humanitarian aid. That’s one of the reasons we involve high school students, so they’re aware of it at a younger age. [With older people,] it’s difficult to change their minds – not because they don’t want to change their minds, but rather because they have a lot of experience, and this experience has shaped their personality and political views already.

 

The Varsity: The mock refugee camp is very important in raising awareness, but there’s still going to be this disconnect between us, living in Toronto and leading ordinary lives by North American standards, and people who are actually in refugee camps. What can be further done to bridge that gap?

DW: This year, we are doing a role-playing activity about TB medicine. Each group has five people, and each person has a different personal background. It could be a single mom earning money to support her two children, or there could be a young girl…  all of them have TB. They try to determine who should receive the only available drug dose. For example, they could want to give it to the mom because she’s earning money to support her children, but at the same time there’s also a promising young student; you don’t want her to die that young. Hopefully, when they’re discussing these issues among themselves, they’re able to realize the complexity of the situation as well as the challenges that are actually faced by refugees daily with respect to drugs and other limited resources.

 

TV: Does the mock refugee camp, or do other opportunities from Friends of MSF, give concerned members of the public opportunities to respond directly to humanitarian crises?

DW: Yes, definitely. One example that comes to mind is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It is a trade agreement that allows pharmaceutical companies to extend their patents overseas, which delays the onset of generic drugs. Primary pharmaceutical companies invest money to develop a drug for tuberculosis and HIV, and then they get an extended 10-year monopoly for that drug so that nobody else can generate revenue from its production. Later on, when the patent expires, the generic companies can make the same drug, but they sell it at a much cheaper price. MSF primarily uses generic drugs; they also do not accept donations from pharmaceutical companies.

If this treaty is signed, it’s going to be quite detrimental to humanitarian aid work, because the cost of pharmaceuticals is going to increase. That’s why they’re calling for a petition [to Prime Minister Harper]. Another important point is that President Obama is calling this treaty the blueprint for other international treaty agreements. If this gets passed, it sets a precedent for pharmaceutical companies to argue for extended patents. We’re planning for the entire Canadian Friends of MSF group to have a cooperation where we get people more aware of this treaty and get them to sign the petition. MSF is pushing this campaign for generic drugs to come faster so that they can be distributed to people.

 

TV: How does awareness of situations like refugee camps shape peoples’ experiences?

DW: As the mock refugee camp, we can only do so much to actually simulate the refugee experience, so we add a personal experience by inviting real MSF experts.

My favourite example is Trish [Newport]. She has been on five missions with MSF, and she always tells this really fascinating story: when she was working in a village in Congo, one night people heard the Lord’s Resistance Army coming. Everyone just packed little things and started running for two, three days straight. I remember Trish said that she asked one of the villagers, “Where do we stop and take a rest?” And the villager responded, saying, “When the Lord’s Resistance Army comes, you don’t rest. You just go, run as fast as possible.”

Initially, what I thought of a refugee camp is just that people are displaced from their homes; that’s all I read in the papers. The stories that [Trish Newport] told really added a personal dimension, and also demonstrated some of the psychological trauma that has been experienced. That makes this whole mock refugee camp much more personal.

We want to provide perspective for people. We’d like to present the facts and the experience to show that there is another perspective to refugee camps, and that there is the need for humanitarian aid. That’s one of the reasons we involve high school students, so they’re aware of it at a younger age. [With older people,] it’s difficult to change their minds – not because they don’t want to change their minds, but rather because they have a lot of experience, and this experience has shaped their personality and political views already.

Long waitlists and overworked staff: the state of mental health at U of T

GSU working with administration to improve system

Long waitlists and overworked staff: the state of mental health at U of T

Being a U of T student can be extremely stressful: endless readings, difficult tests, and the pressure of that seemingly omnipresent question: what’s next? Many stressed students seek support from the Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office. CAPS, which is housed in the Koffler Student Services Centre, attempts to provide students with adequate resources to overcome mental health problems and successfully pursue their academic goals. Services include one-on-one counselling sessions, as well as group workshops that deal with topics like stress and time management. Their effectiveness, however, has been consistently criticized by student leaders, particularly due to long wait times for students.

“A major concern with CAPS is the sheer number of folks that need to utilize the services. They are in waiting lists forever, and when they need that service, they need it promptly. That is simply not happening now,” claims Brad Evoy, internal commissioner of the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU). Janine Robb, executive director of Health and Wellness Services at U of T, cited underfunding and “wasted appointments” as contributors to the delays. “We get students who make appointments and then don’t show up. Then we don’t have an opportunity to fill it in.”

Demand for mental help has increased as campaigns advocating destigamization of mental health have become more widespread across Canada and internationally. Next month, for example, U of T will be hosting a variety of workshops as part of mental health awareness month. In addition, Blue Space and Green Dot are permanent campaigns which aim to destigmatize mental distress and sexual assault respectively, while promoting an openly communicative atmosphere.

Still, U of T psychology professor John Vervaeke says that “There is such a stigmatization [around mental health]. We tend to give people the benefit of the doubt if there is a physical illness but there is a lot more suspicion surrounding mental issues, and a lot more resistance to accepting it.”

The intangible nature of mental distress, uncharacteristic of physical illness, is a major contributor to CAPS’ lack of accessibility. For example, to discern the student’s needs, a screening session via phone is necessary before counselling can take place. “There are two groups of people: the student who doesn’t have a mental health issue and is overwhelmed, and then there’s the student who does,” says Robb. “Everybody has this idea that their emotional experience needs to have an individual counselling session, and that’s not always the case.”

In some cases, those who end up receiving counselling need to wait a long time in between sessions and are unsatisfied with their services. Melissa Beauregard, former head of arts at Trinity College, cited these as the main reasons for not referring her students to CAPS. Instead, she led them to their dean of students, an alternative for undergraduates seeking help. Beauregard described the administration as “incredibly supportive.”

A student suffering from schizophrenia, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed similar sentiments: “In my case, there was a willingness to modify the curriculum and allow me to complete the course… U of T will find ways to still assist you in completing your year.” After disclosing his illness to professors, he found support and an openness to discuss his illness through academic work. “School fostered an environment where I could self-analyze and develop myself…it has been a maturing and healing process,” he says.

While mental health training for faculty is not currently mandatory at the university, it is something Robb hopes “will get traction” as more attention is brought to these issues.

But while some students’ perspective on CAPS remains bleak, the prospect for change does not. The GSU is taking proactive steps by forming a mental health committee that will work with the administration to mitigate these accessibility issues. “I’m very optimistic … so far we’ve had a positive response from Health and Wellness, who are willing to work closely with us to improve the system,” said Evoy

Robb listed the creation and expansion of various venues for students to get help, such as a drop-in counselling program at Hart House and New College, a student-run peer substance abuse program in New College, and a positive psychology workshop starting in January. In addition, there is an active effort to build strong partnerships at CAMH, so that students in need of extensive care “receive it at the right time and for the right amount.”

As for the criticisms, Robb says: “I could hire more counsellors, but I would still have a wait list because there will always be more [students needing help]. We need to promote health. Rather than being reactive, let’s be proactive.”