Trinity is taking a multi-pronged approach to supporting “the whole student”
By Cynthia Macdonald
It’s late on a January afternoon, and the Buttery is alive with talk, laughter and the aroma of coffee. Students struggle out of coats, plunk down backpacks and noisily hail their friends. Save for the ubiquitous screens and earbuds, it’s a timeless picture of Trinity youth at their busiest and happiest. But looks can be deceiving. In a College-wide survey conducted last spring (and reported on in our Summer 2015 issue), fully 50 per cent of students indicated that problems such as stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia were negatively affecting their ability to participate in campus life. They are not alone: At universities across North America, student distress is now at epidemic levels. “We know that mental illness has skyrocketed in the past 10 years,” says Carol Drumm, a third-year Trinity student and mental health activist. “We’re not sure why, but we know that there are many factors.”
Stress is par for the course at an academically demanding school like Trinity—and Provost Mayo Moran frequently hears from those who wonder whether today’s scholars shouldn’t just take it on the chin, as they did in the past. She disagrees.
“Students today do live in a more challenging world,” she says. “Post-secondary education is much more competitive, and the job market is extremely stressful, with lots of part-time and precarious employment. It’s rational for them to feel increased stress.” Technology, too, is changing the world in ways that are exciting but uncertain.
That’s why this year, Trinity has made a concerted effort to improve the psychological well-being of its student body. The change is happening on every level—from new forms of counselling, to widespread awareness training, to ongoing student consultation. U of T’s new mental health framework signifies a campus-wide push to make sure nobody falls through the cracks. One positive aspect of this crisis? People are talking about the issue, in ways they never did before.
ON-CAMPUS SUPPORT TEAM
A recent addition to the supports for Trinity students is embedded counsellor Dr. Christine Cabrera, a clinical psychologist, who is on site two days a week, making it much faster and easier for students to access help than in the past.
Cabrera has regular conversations with Trinity administrators to ensure that she understands “the culture and context in which our students are operating,” says Registrar Nelson De Melo. Available for short-term help, she can also connect students to U of T’s Health and Wellness office to find appropriate resources within the university or the greater community when a longer-term counselling relationship is called for.
The Office of the Registrar and Office of the Dean of Students work closely to help students in need. In essence, both offices work to help support the various aspects of a student’s life that can be impacted when they are struggling. Cabrera is a critical member of that team, as is De Melo; Dean of Students Kristen Moore is another, along with each and every staff member from these two student services offices. Everyone has an important role to play when it comes to offering support for Trinity students. Academic dons can be key players as well—and recently, their efforts have been complemented by those of Trinity’s new learning strategist, Jonathan Vandor. Like Cabrera, Vandor is on campus two days a week, to help with time management, study skills and planning.
The College has put a great deal of effort toward supporting the overall health and wellness of students. This includes not only onsite counselling and support, but also a greater attention to things such as the meals served in the dining halls. “We’ve placed an increased emphasis on healthy raw foods, including maintaining robust options on our salad bar, with homemade soups, which have become a huge hit,” says Moore. “The goal is to focus on the whole student, paying attention to the physical, emotional, academic and social aspects of our students’ lives.”
The team has now been enhanced by another member—Ramata Tarawally, Trinity’s new full-time Associate Director, Community Wellness, thanks to the Anne Steacy Counselling Initiative. In addition to providing wellness programs and counselling for students, staff will also be offered mental health training through the Associate Director’s office, whether they work in the library, food services, porter’s office or elsewhere. “It’s a position that’s unique at U of T,” says Moore. Tarawally wants to give everyone the tools they need to support students.
THE ROLE OF SPIRITUALITY
With its roots in the Anglican church, Trinity also provides spiritual counselling in the person of Andrea Budgey, the Humphrys Chaplain, who is eager to convey the message that her ministry at Trinity is resolutely multi-faith. She points out that the spiritual contribution to mental health is alive at the College, but has shifted shape in some ways: Mindfulness meditation groups (using principles derived from Buddhism) are very popular right now at the university; Budgey also keeps Trinity’s renowned chapel open at noon on Tuesdays for private meditation. “I call it Peace Prayers—it’s whatever people want to make of it,” she says.
Research has shown that when individuals feel a sense of belonging and purpose, they are far more likely to thrive emotionally. “Spirituality is not so much about happiness as it is about meaning,” Budgey explains. That’s why she applauds the efforts of those who join the Trinity College Volunteer Society, which (among other things) provides a meal for the homeless and marginally housed each month from October to April.
Faculty and staff do their best to try and understand the challenges facing modern students, but nobody understands these better than the students themselves. “One of the exciting projects we have in the wings is a student mental health peer helper group,” says Assistant Provost Steels. “Queens started a similar pilot project, and it’s been really successful because students tend to seek help from their fellow students first, so our goal is to ensure that students have the tools and resources to help each other.”
That sentiment is echoed by Carol Drumm and fellow third-year student Narain Yucel, members of the Trinity College Mental Health Initiative (TCMHI). Founded in March 2015, the club works to promote mental health awareness via activities such as panel discussions, or participation in events such as the highly successful Bell Let’s Talk Day.
Here is a paradox: On the one hand, students need help with mental health more than ever. On the other, they are hardly waiting passively to be rescued; rather, they are leading the fight. It’s Trinity’s students who lobbied for onsite counselling and additional mental health- related support; they voted to provide an annual levy (of five dollars each) to help fund those new resources. As Steels says: “They’re smart and they do their research. It’s immensely rewarding to work with them, because we’re working with partners toward an important cause.”
Sitting in the Buttery, Drumm and Yucel unpack the various issues facing their cohort. Among them are the damaging and constant self-comparison with other highly driven, accomplished students; and the isolation and travel-weariness often felt by commuter students.
But Yucel, who is also Co-Head of Arts, asserts that previous generations faced mental health concerns, too. It has long been known that mental illness often sets in between the ages of 15 and 24. Openness around the subject is new, even for people his age. Before, students might have self-medicated through substance (particularly alcohol) abuse, or mysteriously disappeared from campus. “But we can talk about these things now. The culture is really changing,” he says. “I wish I’d had this kind of support during first year, when I was trying to tough things out on my own.”
Creating an environment where students can seek help themselves is important, says Drumm. Unlike its physical counterpart, mental illness can be invisible. “Even your closest friend might not know,” she says. But threats to the mind can be just as serious as those to the body. “In the syllabi of my courses, there’s always a section on what to do if you have a physical illness, but never anything about mental illness,” she says. “The standards that apply to one aren’t always applicable to the other.”
Drumm and Yucel are courageouslyupfront about their own struggles. But they understand that exposure may be difficult for some. They applaud new ideas such as U of T’s Health and Wellness Centre’s upcoming online cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) module, which can be accessed privately. In a Globe and Mail series on mental health last year, CBT—which helps patients interpret situations differently, by changing harmful thought patterns— was proffered as a treatment of choice. But accessibility is a huge problem, says Drumm.
“CBT is something anyone can use, but outside the university it costs $200 an hour,” says Drumm, affirming that the high cost of private (and underfunding of public) treatment are ongoing societal problems. “So to be able to access it here is invaluable.”
Language is another area where many students and faculty believe change needs to occur. On a panel organized by the TCHMI, Moran wonders aloud why people will casually use the term “schizophrenic” to describe reasoning. And Drumm says terms like “crazy” and “depressed” are liberally thrown around, without regard to what they actually mean.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
The mental health movement encourages safety for those afflicted by mental illness, but it’s as much about the other 50 per cent—those who might be managing well now, but are nonetheless vulnerable to trouble later. Drumm (an Ethics, Society and Law major), and Yucel (who specializes in Global Health) say that everyone has an interest in advancing the cause of emotional well-being, irrespective of their academic interest or personal experience, because we all need to take care of our mental health.
Like Moran—who instituted pet therapy and other self-care measures for students while she was Dean of U of T Law—Drumm and Yucel insist that all students need to develop good self-care habits now, before entering work environments that appear to be increasingly stressful. “We want to promote mental health, and to prevent mental illness. People really need to understand that part of what we do,” says Drumm.
So it may well be that looks don’t deceive. While the students in the Buttery on this January afternoon are surely facing pressure and strain, they’re now being equipped with the tools to deal with those challenges. They’re learning that consistent happiness is an impossible ideal, that negative emotions are natural, and that others feel as they do. But most importantly, they know they are part of a community—one that will support them if they fall, and do its best to stop that from ever happening.
ALUMNI REACH OUT TO SUPPORT CURRENT STUDENTS
The safeguarding of mental health is a top concern for today’s youth, but it’s clearly just as important to alumni from previous generations. Trinity’s wide-ranging new mental health strategy can now be
fully realized, thanks to the generous efforts of former students.
Writer and artist Anne Steacy ’76 recently made a landmark $1.5 million donation in support of the Anne Steacy Counselling Initiative. Her visionary gift will enable Trinity to maintain a team that is fully dedicated to strengthening social and psychological well-being on campus. New staff include Associate Director, Community Wellness Ramata Tarawally, who will provide wellness programs, student counselling and mental health training for Trinity staff; and embedded counsellor Dr. Christine Cabrera, whose accessibility and presence have proven enormously beneficial to students who, in other days, might have been put on excessively long waiting lists for care.
Dr. Steacy believes that students need a “safety net” under them, as she likens the stress and uncertainty of university life to the act of walking a tightrope. While many Trinity professors have been inspiring and supportive over the years (Steacy cites, in her case, the example of English professor Pat Brückmann), the community-wide backup that Trinity is now committed to providing can only serve to make the safety net that much sturdier.
Also noteworthy is a gift from alumni Michael Royce ’68 and Sheila (Northey) Royce ’68, who have donated $250,000 toward the Health and Wellness program at Trinity. “We recognize that if Trinity is to remain the centre of true excellence it has long been, it must provide comprehensive support to its students to allow them to take full advantage of the Trinity experience,” they maintain. “We believe this initiative will constitute a central pillar of that support.”