By students, for students The student groups taking mental health into their own hands

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Students at UW are taking the mental health of their peers into their own hands in a way that hopes to address isolation on campus and the stigmatization of mental health resources once and for all.

Kirruthikah Vadivel, a third-year honours psychology student, is the president of one such group: SOCH Mental Health club, the UW branch of a national organization that aims to combat stigma around mental health in South Asian communities. Soch (ਸੋਚ) is a word in Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi that means “to think” or “a thought.”  

SOCH typically hosts two events per term, usually de-stressing activities that aim to foster creativity and provide a safe space for students to relax with friends or meet new people. Though it is open to everyone, many South Asian students in particular attend these events, Vadivel said. “You can really tell [the events] [do] help them de-stress… it’s like a way they don’t have to focus on school or anything like that.” 

Alongside these, SOCH runs social media campaigns targeted towards the South Asian community, such as Mental Health Resource of the Month, which spotlights various media focusing on mental health, largely by South Asian authors. Another campaign is Breaking Barriers: South Asian Struggles, which explains the struggles that occur within the South Asian community, such as the consistent comparisons made by South Asian parents of their children with other South Asian youth, and strategies to deal with it.

Hsiao d’Ailly, associate professor in social development studies at Renison University College, explained that the creation of such communities plays into the prevention aspect of mental health, and ensures that if the situation escalates, students can access the individual support needed to overcome it. Debbie Wang, a part-time UW lecturer in social development studies, emphasized the importance of such support, though access to it can be hindered by stigmas around mental wellness. “The only thing is the resources… we’re hesitant to reach out. Time, energy, and money [make] it less accessible, especially to students, let alone students [who] come from certain cultural communit[ies] [where] the stigma can be immense,” Wang said.

Vadivel, whose parents come from Sri Lanka, expressed the personal impact of her work. She recalled an exchange from first year, where after explaining her exam-induced stress to her father, he suggested, to her surprise, that if she needed a break after the year, she could transfer to an easier school or take a year off. 

“That was really surprising to me. Hearing that come out of his mouth… [the effort to destigmatize mental health] is really working to be honest. Like you can see a lot of people are prioritizing their mental health more, which I really enjoy,” she said.

She explained that a large reason why she joined SOCH was because of how important she feels a student-built community and support system is, which can sometimes feel more helpful than support from professors because of the sense that “everyone is in this together.”

UW certainly has no shortage of demand for both community and individual support. In the last fiscal year, 4,109 students, accounting for roughly 11 per cent of total students that year, sought appointments at Campus Wellness, a trend that’s held relatively steady since before COVID-19. 

  • 2019-2020 – 4,352, or 12 per cent of students
  • 2020-2021 – 2,954, or just under eight per cent of students
  • 2021-2022 – 4,129, or roughly 11 per cent of students
  • 2022-2023 – 4,109, or roughly 11 per cent of students

Goldi Gill, executive director of Campus Wellness, said in a statement to Imprint that the data “highlights a growing demand for student support since the pandemic, a trend reflected across the sector.” A report from the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health showed that students in Ontario post-secondary institutions reported higher levels of anxiety and feelings of stress or isolation in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, sometimes it’s the big incidents that bring awareness,” Wang said, listing suicidal attempts, mental breakdowns, and feelings of isolation as incidents that can cause a “mushroom” of focus on students’ mental health. When asked if the attacks on Hagey Hall last June could be considered one such event, d’Ailly said that with danger can also come an opportunity to reflect. Speaking of the attack, “it’s scary… it provoke[s] fear, but… at the same time it makes you face things in a more direct way and… that’s where resilience comes in, right? Like ‘we are facing [a] difficult situation, let’s all look at it and think about [how] we can make our community stronger.’”

“Recognizing that there’s no universal remedy for mental health, I applaud students for their ingenuity in seeking out solutions like the UW Smile Club,” Gill’s statement continued, explaining that Campus Wellness has been conducting focus groups and surveys, as well as reaching out to “various student organizations across campus,” to determine students’ primary concerns and how best to address them. 

According to Gill, in the past year, Campus Wellness has reduced wait times for individual, ongoing counselling services by 60 per cent by “addressing bottlenecks and finding areas of efficiencies.” 

“We’re in this together,” Gill concluded her statement.

SOCH isn’t the only group of students creating student-centric spaces to improve mental health. UW Smile Club, a relatively new club on campus, hopes to spread awareness about the mental health resources available to students on campus, and has done so with the support of Campus Wellness and Gill. Its growth demonstrates the demand for such spaces: according to Rastin Rassoli, a computer science and psychology double major and Smile Club president, the club’s membership has more than doubled to 160 members, up from the 70 they had last term. 

Rassoli explained that over the spring 2023 term, through conversations with peers and students from other schools, he and his friends realized that many students were unaware of or unwilling to access the different mental health resources available to them. “So we realized that you need some sort of community that’s student-led and tries to promote these resources and connects students to these available services,” he said.

Though Rassoli and his friends hoped to start the club that same term, WUSA’s concerns about the sensitivity of the topic required the club to gain the support of Campus Wellness and participate in meetings to “convince WUSA that… students [could] run such a club,” all of which delayed the club’s official start to fall 2023.

Rassoli praised the support Campus Wellness has provided the club, stating that their belief in the club was what convinced WUSA to support it as well. He explained that Campus Wellness helped direct what the club should take on and provided some free resources and samples it might need. 

The club aims to spread awareness about mental health resources available to students, and to counter the idea that such resources should only be used by those with severe mental health conditions. Part of this work, Rassoli said, includes taking responsibility to inform students how they can help solve issues that affect the whole community, such as by informing Campus Wellness of appointment cancellations with notice, if possible, to avoid unintentionally prolonging the waitlist. They also host events to give students space to take a breather and bond with one another. Maria Perervine, a second-year biochemistry student and Smile Club’s events director, said that the events differ depending on the needs of their members, because “everyone’s struggling with something and the way that they deal with those things, it’s different for everyone.”

The club also aims to simply foster a community for students to support other students. “We’re also students… so we can just talk with each other and it’s not necessarily related to mental health, sometimes it’s just a student is not feeling well just because of an exam, you know, and they want to talk with another student,” Rassoli said.

When asked how he balances Smile Club with school, Rassoli said that the ability to help people, the love he holds for the work, and the positive feedback he receives from Smile Club members gives him energy to keep going. “It doesn’t really drain your energy, it doesn’t feel like working, it gives you just more passion and more determination to start working on things.”

“We are not trying to have a campus [where] there’s no stress… there’s no difficulty. It’s not like that. It’s… how do we collectively support people [who] go through these difficult situation[s]?” d’Ailly said.