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Opinion: Graduate students are not getting enough mental health support

Accommodations that are needed to manage online schooling are lacking
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

This academic year has been exhausting. For public health students like myself, the constant need to be informed on the pandemic is simply an added layer of stress. Among all of this, graduate students are not being granted the kinds of leniency and accommodations necessary to navigate this stressful environment.

So many students are at a breaking point, and it’s only the fourth week of classes. Graduate school is known for its rigour and ability to challenge your mental capacity, but is that really what students need right now? 

Before COVID-19, lecture material was taught; it wasn’t uploaded into pre-recorded videos or added to a neverending reading list. Discussions with peers occurred so your thinking could be challenged. You learned in a group and had informal study groups after class.  

A 2021 graduate student is so far removed from what they signed up for. They didn’t sign up to be siloed in their homes because of a pandemic with no access to peers unless a group chat is started or initiative is taken to meet outside of lectures. Nor did they expect to have to pay attention for three hours in a Zoom lecture with no breaks.

None of this is normal, and some of us are at a breaking point. But what happens when we reach that breaking point and seek help? The simple answer is, not enough. 

In 2019, U of T reported having 90 counsellors for 90,000 students, and recently, a blog made to recount student mental health experiences at U of T reported wait times of at least two months. When I advocated for student wellness in a lecture, I got referred to program-specific resources and was told to reach out with any concerns. I was told that our complaints would only get students who are concerned about conflicting deadlines and mental capacity an accommodation letter at best.

Just this week, my cohort reached out to request some flexibility in two competing assignment deadlines, each worth 20 per cent of our mark, and the professor responded that “competing deadlines will be a reality after you leave school and this is the time to grow and develop the skills to manage and meet multiple deadlines.” This felt like a strange disconnect from the narrative being told by administrators at U of T about taking care of mental wellness during these “unprecedented times.”

This is not the time to preach time management to a group of graduate students. Getting into graduate school and succeeding in online classes has required us to learn Herculean time management over the past year. Many of us are adult students who are well-versed in time management, and we are requesting extensions or flexibility because that’s what we have been taught to do in work settings for competing deadlines. 

This year, many of us are completing our graduate degree in our childhood bedroom, removed from the academic experience and isolated from peers. We have miraculously adapted to this new, exhausting way of learning. We need compassion, and we need support. 

The burnout and exhaustion students are experiencing is dangerous, with 72 per cent of young adults experiencing a decline in their mental health since the pandemic began. We need student mental health to be treated like the crisis it is. 

So, to professors: ask us if we are okay, but mean it. Give us breaks during our three-hour Zoom lectures. Get rid of time zone-dependent deadlines to ensure equity. Consider student mental health in course planning, and be willing to meet reasonable requests halfway. 

Restructuring classes to reasonably test knowledge in a home-testing environment is important, as many of us do not have access to a steady internet connection and a quiet space for three hours. Be empathetic, and remember that we’re just humans who love to learn — that’s why we’re showing up this year instead of deferring until in-person classes resume. 

There is no perfect solution to this, but one thing is certain: we need to be kind. We need to be empathetic and understanding of each other. This online style of teaching is here for the foreseeable future, so we should learn to maximize learning while striving for mental wellness. Collaboration to improve the academic experience could save lives.

Keltie Hamilton is a graduate student at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health