With their guaranteed minimum funding package estimated to be roughly $4,000 under Toronto’s poverty line, it should not be a surprise that graduate students struggle with mental health issues. Financial struggles and mental health issues are closely linked. Poverty is one of the most important social determinants of health, and it contributes to physical and psychological illness. Therefore, improving someone’s financial situation can have a positive impact on their mental health.
As an employer, the university is responsible for improving the mental health of its students to create a safe and healthy environment. If the university is committed to improving mental health, then the negotiation with the TA union is an opportunity to transform the mental health challenges of students. The report by the Provostial Advisory Committee On Student Mental Health produced last year recommends programs for graduate students to create a greater sense of community. However, how can this sense of community be created when students spend their time struggling to make ends meet? Improving mental health at U of T requires interventions that transform the student experience. Reducing financial burdens on students is one of these interventions.
The issues facing the TAs are health issues and demand the attention of health professionals. Students in health sciences and health professionals are educated about the social determinants of health. Indeed, understanding and advocating for social determinants of health is one of the core competencies of our profession. Given our responsibility to advocate for better health, the TA strike is an opportunity for current and future health professionals to practice health advocacy by supporting the TA union.
A number of departments and faculties have already extended their support to the TA union. For example, the tri-campus sociology faculty has stated in its letter of support, “As sociologists, we are concerned about the pronounced inequalities that shape working conditions at the University of Toronto, and at universities across Canada.”
The sociology faculties stayed true to the core principles of their discipline and responsibly voiced their concern to the university. Similar statements have been released from faculties of philosophy, women and gender studies, history, and others. However, the faculties of medicine, public health, nursing, and social work have yet to extend their support to the union.
This silence from the university’s health faculties on the TA strike is concerning. As described by the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, advocacy is the role of all health professionals. It would be hypocritical of health professionals to stay silent on the underlying health issues present in their own university. We have this unique opportunity as current and future health professionals to display our commitment to improving health by staying true to the principles of public health and tackling the root causes of mental health at the University of Toronto.
I need to stress that we hold these responsibilities in virtue of our health profession. As a master’s of public health student, I am neither funded by the university nor required to TA. The demands of CUPE 3902 Unit 1 are not relevant to my needs as a graduate student. Still, I cannot ignore the demands of the TA union. As a future health professional and an advocate for mental health, it is my professional responsibility to stand in solidarity with the TA union.
Addressing the root causes of the mental health issues on campus is possible in this negotiation. The current and future health professionals at U of T can help in fostering the recognition that the demands of the TA union are public health demands.
Abtin Parnia is a master’s of public health student at U of T.