The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) has announced the launch of a campaign for mental health services.

At the UTSU annual general meeting (AGM) last November, attendees voted to take steps to fight stigma associated with mental health, end discrimination against students with mental health issues, and improve mental health support on campus. In response, Kaleem Hawa, chair of the Trinity College Meeting (TCM), and Yolen Bollo-Kamara, UTSU president, created the Mental Health Action Team to address mental health issues on campus.

During the campaign, the UTSU will be working with Active Minds, Let’s Talk Health, the Centre for Women and Trans People, Peers are Here, and other campus organizations to plan events and programs towards achieving the three goals outlined at the AGM.

According to UTSU president Yolen Bollo-Kamara, the persistent stigma around mental illness, coupled with lengthy waitlists, dissuades some students from accessing mental health resources on campus.

“One of the main issues is inadequate funding for CAPS [Counselling And Psychological Services], which is why one of our goals is to push for stronger support for Health and Wellness from the central administration,” Bollo-Kamara said.

Hassan Havili, University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) president, described similar mental health issues at the Mississauga campus’ Health and Counselling Centre (HCC).

“The service is inaccessible due to long wait times and high frequency of visits,” he said. 

Havili also expressed frustration over the university’s perceived unwillingness to address UTMSU’s annual proposals to reform mental health resource funding.

“We continue to lobby for more funding from the university to support important [mental health] initiatives … without indirectly contributing to one of the primary sources of mental distress, which is student debt,” he said.

Alternative resources

According to Michael Kurts, assistant vice-president, strategic communications and marketing, CAPS wait times are significantly shorter than those of external mental health services, which range from six months to a year. Kurts added that alternative support, such as workshops, is also provided to help bridge longer wait times.

A second-year student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, attended group counselling during his three-month wait for CAPS, but found the sessions general and inapplicable to individual needs.

“Throughout the [waiting] process you feel like the school is just a system and … as if you didn’t matter,” he said, adding: “But the therapy, one on one talking, changes that point of view a lot… I’ve been going there almost weekly since [April] and it’s really amazing how therapy works.”

According to Kurts, the university’s recently formed Provostial Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health includes four working groups on anti-stigma education, inclusive curriculum design, policies and procedures, and services and programs. The Provostial Advisory Committee will present a comprehensive mental health framework to the provost this fall, outlining recommendations from 26 focus groups involving 180 graduate and undergraduate students across all three campuses.

A third-year participant of one focus group, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said her group engaged in discussion that recognized the university’s main problem as being “a lack of knowledge about campus resources and … accessibility services.”

Bollo-Kamara said the Mental Health Action Team has been working over the summer to finish a report that summarizes recommendations from a number of mental health-related groups on campus. Recommendations include having information about basic support services on course syllabi, expanding crisis centre hours, and introducing a stronger feedback and accountability process for CAPS. The recommendations will be submitted to the Provostial Advisory Committee once completed.

 Representatives of the UTSU have also started lobbying for a fall reading week.

Positive experiences

Hawa, the sole undergraduate representative on the Provostial Advisory Committee, emphasized that CAPS still provides a valuable service to many students.

“It means that someone with a debilitating illness who is at risk of self-harm is not put behind an individual stressed about an exam… The system works for those who need it most: the poor experiences with CAPS are perceived as more newsworthy while the true success stories … are dismissed as the system ‘doing its job,’” Hawa said, regarding criticism of the needs-based appointment system used by CAPS.

Third-year student Rachel Costin was appointed a psychiatrist within one week of her phone interview with CAPS and quickly began cognitive behavioural therapy to treat her diagnosis of bipolar type II.

“My psychiatrist at CAPS is a wonderful doctor, and was very helpful when I was having awful side effects from the first medication he put me on,” she said, adding: “He was also very accommodating in suggesting and filling out the paperwork for me to apply to Accessibility Services… The people who work at CAPS seem to truly care about the students they are working with.”

Academic stigma

While generally positive about CAPS, Hawa said that more work can be done to improve mental health services on campus.

 “Professors need to be better trained towards anti-stigma language and the university needs to establish clearer protocols on appropriate academic accommodations for students with mental health needs,” he said.

“Stigma is often described by experts as a greater obstacle to wellness than the illness itself,” Kurts said. “Stigma may be most effectively addressed through education and training around mental health/illness that fosters supportive and compassionate responses to students in distress [and] encourages students to seek help,” he said.

For example, third-year student Erin Singer, who was diagnosed with major depressive disorder in high school, criticized the university for perceived unclear academic protocols. 

According to Singer, a professor refused to accept external medical documentation as grounds for a deadline extension. She said the professor insisted she be registered for Accessibility Services, which Singer was unaware she was eligible for. After registering with Accessibility Services, she said her counsellor listed all possible accommodations based on her individual needs and sent the list to her professors before term began.

“[My professors] have all been very understanding and they essentially do whatever Accessibility asks them to on my behalf. It’s so much easier than trying to negotiate with [my professors] myself with only the medical documentation as I had been before,” said Singer.

Through Accessibility Services, Singer now has access to Test and Exam Services, which allows her to write exams in the low-stress environment of the Accessibility Room in the Exam Centre.

“I feel much more comfortable going into courses knowing that I can ask for help when I need it and will be met with understanding instead of hostility and skepticism,” Singer added.

Collaborations towards awareness

Kurts emphasized that CAPS does not have a fixed number of sessions per student, contrary to rumours that CAPS limits sessions to 20 appointments per student. He also highlighted the university’s decision to continue its integrated approach to mental health by collaborating with Kinesiology & Physical Education and Hart House to provide programs like MoveU and eating disorders support groups. Online and face-to-face counselling for students in the Faculty of Arts & Science is also available through Counseline.

Havili said that UTMSU is collaborating with UTSU for its upcoming mental health campaign and highlighted past partnerships with UTSU on exam de-stressor events. 
UTMSU is currently planning peer-to-peer groups in conjunction with the HCC, aimed at providing students with spaces to share opinions on mental health. Educational workshops and relaxation services are also in the works.

According to Tahsin Chowdhury, president of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), mental health awareness campaigns at the campus started two years ago. 

For example, the SCSU organized eXpression Against Oppression, a series of events aimed at building mental health awareness, including a self-care fair, student discussions around mental health, and a mental health awareness wall. 

Chowdhury noted that SCSU mental health awareness campaigns occur with heavy collaboration from official university organizations, such as the Health and Wellness Centre, Community Safety Office, and Green Dot program.

Correction (Monday, July 21st, 2014): A previous version of this article said that the UTSU created the Committee on Mental Health to address mental health issues on campus. The committee was founded by Kaleem Hawa, chair of the Trinity College Meeting, and Yolen Bollo-Kamara, UTSU president.

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