The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) is launching its Mental Health Peer Support Program this month. The program will hold weekly sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the winter 2021 academic term, starting on January 12. 

The Mental Health Peer Support Program is open to all full-time and part-time undergraduate UTM students, which includes all UTMSU members and Mississauga Academy of Medicine students. The program, UTMSU President Mitra Yakubi shared, has set out to be “for students by the students,” and is in partnership with Stella’s Place, a Toronto-based organization focused on providing mental health services to individuals aged 16–29.

Creating a peer support program

Yakubi wrote to The Varsity that the UTMSU Mental Health Peer Support Program was created in response to the increased need for mental health resources and support systems for students. She noted that “with the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for mental health resources are at an all-time high.” 

Yakubi also highlighted student outreach initiatives that have taken place in the past few years, which have called for improvement of mental health services at UTM. Specifically, she mentioned the incident in 2019 when UTM campus police handcuffed a student who was in mental distress, noting that the incident “has caused many students to no longer feel safe accessing resources at UTM.”

With regard to the partnership, Yakubi wrote that the UTMSU will work “very closely” with Stella’s Place to ensure its peer supporters are “well equipped and trained.” She noted that the partnership has been “excellent” and that the UTMSU and Stella’s Place “meet weekly to ensure that the UTMSU Peer Support Program operates smoothly.” Stella’s Place highlights peer support as a core service within its organization. 

The process for creating the UTMSU Mental Health Peer Support Program involved hiring peer support workers during the fall 2020 semester. The UTMSU’s hiring committee reviewed, assessed, and approved or denied applications before sending recruited members to training, which involved three mandatory sessions before taking on the position.

Peer support workers also attend follow-up meetings, which Yabuki wrote are “to ensure that our volunteers are constantly learning ways in which they can best support the UTM community.” 

Similar programs at UTM

The Health and Counselling Centre (HCC) at UTM has the Peers Supporting Peers Program. This program offers peer-led Wellness Workshops for UTM students, which are often facilitated by upper-year peer mentors and offered throughout the winter semester. Yakubi wrote that “the UTMSU Peer Support Program is still quite different from other services as it is peers supporting peers through their own lived experiences.” For example, a sign-up form for the program asks for the participant’s age to best match them with a compatible mentor.

The HCC at UTM provides other mental health services as well, including access to the My Student Support Program, which allows students to virtually connect with a student support advisor and receive mental health counselling. This option is especially intended for UTM students who are currently outside of Canadian borders. The HCC itself offers “short-term, solution-focused counselling and therapy services.” 

Under COVID-19 precautions, the HCC is operating virtually, with appointments taking place over the phone or through video calls. Clinicians at the HCC can provide referrals to assist students in accessing community resources if complex or long-term care is required. Group counselling is also offered at the HCC, with sessions taking place throughout the winter 2021 semester.