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Can stress-buster events fix mental health at U of T?

JOANA BARGAS/THE VARSITY

Can stress-buster events fix mental health at U of T?

How student groups are stepping in to fill the void U of T has left behind

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

It’s exam season at U of T. This time of year, stress-buster events are a mainstay, ranging from immersive workshops to meditation techniques to plant potting.

They’re intended to help students take their minds off their worries. However, in the context of the mental health crisis at U of T, they are also a common target of criticism. The general consensus seems to be that these events are attempts by the administration to address the needs of a struggling student population in the most superficial way possible.

Metaphors abound: damming a river with a coffee filter, or launching a Saturn V rocket with Mentos and Coca-Cola. At protests, on social media, in classrooms, and in ordinary conversations, students have been clear: these events simply aren’t enough — they don’t even come close.

However, for many students, stress-buster events can be a helpful way of letting off steam during a demanding and isolating period. Combined with appropriate outside treatment, they can also help students struggling with more severe issues engage with others and combat loneliness. It’s also notable that many stress-busting initiatives are hosted by independent student groups, who are doing what they can to help struggling peers.

However, a critical assessment of these events illuminates the need for holistic mental health reform, both at U of T and in our society at large.

Picking up the university’s slack

U of T students face punishing workloads, issues with mental health, an isolating campus culture, and inaction from the highest level of the university administration.

In this environment, the idea that our problems can be meaningfully addressed by spending an hour planting a succulent feels insensitive and misinformed at best. At worst, these events seem outright negligent — not because they are harmful, but because they exist within a context characterized by the university’s failure to provide effective and accessible mental health services.

This is exemplified by one student’s comment on the How Many Lives? website, which features anonymous testimony on mental health at U of T: “I’m tired of asking for help and being referred to a session to make DIY bath bombs.”

Indeed, many students need more than arts and crafts and a therapy dog — they need a therapist. But when they turn to Health & Wellness, they can experience unjustifiably long wait times, exhausting bureaucracy, and punitive policies. In the face of this, it is ultimately up to student organizations to fill in the gaps of support.

One such example is Healing Hearts Through Art (h2art). Following the third apparent suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology within two years, h2art was launched in October by Christeen Salik. The group was created in order to facilitate art-based healing opportunities for students.

In an interview with The Varsity, Salik remarked that, though she had always been open about her mental health, she found that art was the only avenue through which she could heal and express the complex feelings that arose after the apparent suicide in March. Art, she reasoned, could also help students without the English-language skills to comfortably communicate with a counsellor, and students who are more comfortable with non-verbal communication.

Salik observed that the university seems “fragmented” on mental health. She called for increased funding for mental health services, as well as for greater collaboration between Health & Wellness, colleges, faculties, and student groups — though she was quick to note that ultimate responsibility falls on the university.

Salik also mentioned that she knew many student activists who have had to take breaks this semester after “pouring themselves” into their activism.

“We’re obviously picking up the slack right now,” she said.

A fundamental lack of resources

StrengthIN is another student group that has grown from the mental health crisis. This student organization works to help students develop practical strategies to maintain their mental health. Originally founded to facilitate mental health workshops for high school students, it has recently begun to host workshops and stress-buster activities on-campus.

I recently attended an event facilitated by the organization: a Harry Potter-themed mental wellness workshop. As the soundtrack of the films played in the background, attendees were seated around tables in the Hart House East Common Room. The event’s facilitators encouraged us to share our experiences with mental health and coping, as well as techniques to combat stress and broader pressures on our mental health.

Later, I sat down with two of the event’s organizers: Zara Mian, an event coordinator, and Kyla Trkulja, StrengthIN’s secretary. They explained that the group does what it can and tries to stay focused on combatting loneliness among students while enhancing students’ coping techniques.

Trkulja spoke about how her past experiences mobilized her to join StrengthIN. She lives with depression and anxiety, and tried to access counselling through the Health & Wellness Centre last year when she experienced a relapse.

Although she arrived at the centre during a moment of crisis, she was quickly sent away with instructions to come back with a doctor’s referral. She claims that when she acquired one, Health & Wellness took a month to send her an automated email indicating that she could book an appointment. The next available appointment? Four months away.

When the opportunity arose to help StrengthIN facilitate mental health workshops for students, Trkulja jumped at the chance. She commented, “We need as many resources as we can get.”   

Both Mian and Trkulja agreed that administrative inaction has put a weight on the shoulders of student groups like StrengthIN.

“They do put like a burden on groups like ours,” said Mian.

This is ultimately a responsibility that they cannot shoulder alone. Providing comprehensive care cannot start and end with stress-buster events and workshops alone.

“[StrengthIN is] realistic [about] what we can do,” said Mian. “We’re not mental health professionals.”

“We need to change everything”

Ramata Tarawaly is the Associate Director of Community Wellness at Trinity College, a role which encompasses two broad portfolios: working to connect individual students struggling with mental illness with supports like counselling, and promoting well-being throughout the college’s community.

Tarawaly told me that she sometimes gets critical feedback from students who ask why the college invests in wellness and stress-buster events when they are not appropriate remedies for severe mental health issues.

“That’s not their intention,” she said. “I think that’s why we need multiple different targets in terms of promoting good mental health [and] engaging with people who are experiencing mental illness. The programming is one aspect of more of a community approach.”

She noted that easily accessible programs like stress-buster events can actually help support the treatment and goals of students struggling with mental illness.

“Students that are having [issues with] anxiety, depression, or stress have… reported to me that [stress-busters and community building events] are helpful,” she said.

Furthermore, she told me that Trinity’s approach to wellness programming has been attentive to the needs of the students that she works with. This year, the college has been increasingly oriented toward activities that require less overt socialization after students expressed that social anxiety was a barrier to attendance.

She noted that, “You don’t have to socialize, but you’re in a social space.”

As conversations surrounding mental health have become more prevalent, Tarawaly has noticed a positive trend of students actively indicating their needs, critiques, and recommendations to the administration.

“We’ve worked really hard to meet those needs and be responsive,” she said.

Tarawaly’s position is a model that could be usefully applied across the university. Her position is a centralized role with the resources and capacity to support mental health at U of T by working with various entities such as students, Health & Wellness, community advisors, and the wider college administration.

However, the resources and funding available to the university and community as whole makes it difficult to replicate this role. A registered nurse, Tarawaly is no stranger to interacting with health care systems and thinking about the overarching remedies that must be made to better them.

“We need to change everything,” she said.

The dangers of a partial fix

Although the overwhelming lack of available institutional mental health resources has led to student groups running stress-buster events, it still must be acknowledged that these events are not sufficient and sustainable support structures for students.

Lucinda Qu, one of the founding members and organizers of the student group called the UofT Mental Health Policy Council, emphasized the importance of developing “continuums and networks of care.” This would necessitate improved coordination of mental health strategies, services, and resources across levels of administration, ranging from leaders of mental health programs to professors, as well as improved communication between the administration and students.

For Qu, the prevalence of stress-busters and student perceptions of administrative inaction on mental health is connected to a broader phenomenon.

“A certain proportion of U of T’s resources could, and perhaps should, go toward the implementation of stress-busters,” she said. However, she also believes that the university relies too heavily on the promotion of stress-buster events and interventions, as opposed to meaningful strategies to address the root causes of mental illness on campus and to provide adequate support for individuals struggling with a mental illness.

In addition, the mindfulness that’s often practiced at stress-buster events is not comprehensively enough on its own in order to address the prevalence of mental illness on campus. Some events that teach meditation methods can actually be detrimental to student health.

According to a 2014 study in Future Medicine, the practice of mindfulness through meditation can trigger side effects such as panic attacks, dissociation, or suicidal feelings.

That means that students who lack this information beforehand may attend stress-buster events that advocate for mindfulness or meditation and come out feeling worse than before, which has the potential for serious emotional harm.

A path forward

Though they are an easy target of criticism — much of which is warranted — stress-busters aren’t all bad. In fact, their prevalence and pitfalls are largely visible symptoms of a deeper systemic issue: U of T’s lack of meaningful action on mental health. Intentionally or unintentionally, stress-busters have ended up helping to fill the void that has been left behind.

The experiences of student groups, activists, and even some administrative staff are instructive. Across the board, those interviewed agreed that more funding, better coordination amongst staff and between staff and students, centralization of a mental health mandate, and clear pathways to comprehensive care are needed.

If U of T provided extensive, easy-to-access mental health care and undertook academic, cultural, and financial changes to reduce the burdens shouldered by students, then stress-buster events would function as they are intended to. They could be fun, helpful ways to ease stress, lighten moods, and connect with others during stressful times.

However, right now, stress-buster events serve as an inadequate stopgap intended to help keep the student population afloat, many of whom are struggling in the absence of institutional support. The abilities of stress-busters are limited, which is largely recognized, but they do what they can.

“If we can help one person [who is] struggling,” Trkulja said, “then I feel that all the effort is worth it.”

If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566

Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454

Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600

Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200

U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention