Grad Minds, a mental health committee at the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union, launched a peer support initiative last month aimed at promoting graduate student mental health. The program will “connect grad students who are looking for support dealing with stress with a peer who will listen, care, and refer to other mental health resources as necessary,” according to the Grad Minds team. 

How it works

Students who sign up for the program will be connected to a peer supporter who can help them navigate university resources, as well as offer them social and emotional support. According to the Grad Minds Peer Support website, the program is not meant to provide crisis support or replace professional mental health services.

The Grad Minds peer support team consists of five graduate student volunteers from varying education backgrounds. The core team of Grad Minds wrote in an email to The Varsity, “Our trained peer supporters offer support for students’ mental health by listening with empathy, and making students feel heard, seen, and understood.” 

According to Grad Minds, peer supporters “will also suggest additional mental health resources to students if they sense that they would benefit from therapeutic intervention.”

The number of peer support sessions offered will vary according to each student’s needs. Support sessions can be scheduled up to once a week for up to an hour at a time, and are currently being conducted over Zoom. Graduate students can sign up for peer support by submitting an intake form available through the Grad Minds Peer Support website. 

Peer supporters reflect 

Michelle De Pol, a first-year master’s student at the Institute of Medical Science, is one of the five Grad Minds peer supporters. De Pol was involved in peer support throughout her undergraduate degree, both as a mentor and mentee, and joined Grad Minds’ initiative to continue engaging with peer support initiatives throughout graduate school. 

“Feeling supported can create a sense of belonging and make it easier to handle stressful moments and difficult situations,” De Pol wrote in an email to The Varsity. “Even if the other student is going through something that I have never experienced myself, we always have the shared experience of being a university student, which can foster trust and empathy within the peer-support relationship.” 

De Pol emphasized that peer support isn’t a replacement for counselling. However, she believes that for many students, the program may offer a “quicker way to access support” than more conventional ways of accessing mental health treatment. She added that “some students may feel more comfortable speaking with a peer at first” than with a therapist or counsellor “due to the shared experience of being a university student.”

Grad Minds Volunteer Coordinator Audrey Kao expressed a similar opinion to De Pol. Kao wrote in an email to The Varsity, “Unlike institutional support, our peer support initiative offers a here-and-now shared experience between peers, which may allow peers to feel more comfortable speaking about the issues they’re dealing with.” 

Grad Minds recognized that there is great interest from students for more peer support programs to be put in place at U of T,” Kao wrote. She added that this is the first peer support program at the university just for graduate students. 

“We believe that an initiative that offers peer support for grad students by grad students provides our community with the invaluable resource of a listening ear who understands the unique stresses of being in grad school,” Kao explained. 

She added that peer-to-peer support is especially important for graduate students because they “deal with a number of unique stressors, such as those that come along with research and dissertations, and professional development.”

De Pol added that peer support may help with graduate students’ feelings of alienation, as they may struggle with navigating the university or the city. She noted that students may also be experiencing more isolation during the pandemic. 

“During these tough times, grad students might need more support managing their mental health and academic stress, and more opportunities to build community – and that is where our peer support initiative comes in,” wrote Kao.