Mental Health Support for UCalgary Graduate Students

The Mental Health and Wellness Subcommittee (MHWS) is a ratified student-led organization within the University of Calgary’s (UCalgary) Graduate Students’ Association (GSA). This subcommittee was created to address gaps in mental health support for graduate students at UCalgary. The MHWS exists under the Student Experience and Events Committee, which elevates the lives of graduate students at UCalgary via events, programs, and initiatives. The purpose of the MHWS is to enhance the mental health and wellness of all GSA members through events, campaigns, education, and advocacy initiatives. The MHWS works to create a compassionate post-secondary environment in which students are provided resources to support their mental health and feel comfortable seeking support for their mental health and well-being. 

Our mission statement for the 2020-21 academic year is to create a compassionate and inclusive post-secondary environment in which graduate students are empowered with the skills and resources to seek help and achieve balance in day-to-day life. The MHWS is a place where graduate students can learn, talk, and receive access to resources to support their mental health and well-being. 

As the 2020-21 academic year will be conducted primarily online, we hope to assist graduate students by prioritizing virtual events, advocacy, and education. Our primary events this year will be monthly Speaker Series, two Destress Weeks, and Bell Let’s Talk Day. 

To increase awareness of resources available for graduate students, we have engaged in a focused and thoughtful social media campaign. This includes spreading awareness via Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Further, we have refined a mental health resource guide that includes information for on-and-off campus mental health and wellness resources, and outlines services, hours of services, contact information, and costs. 

To build capacity, we have initiated a partnership with the Wellbeing 400 course (WELL400) to better the lives of graduate students through the identification of barriers to accessing mental health supports on campus, and to finding feasible solutions to address these concerns. 

To promote awareness, we are planning to advocate for increased mental health and wellness support for graduate students via modifications to the Student-Supervisor Checklist. We are hopeful that the updated Checklist will promote mental health awareness and education to graduate students and supervisors, fostering the important discussion of mental health and well-being as a graduate student.

Events

The typical graduate student experience has been changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic the world is facing. As such, the MHWS has carefully put thought into creating opportunities for students to interact in virtual settings and still make the most of the resources available to them. Although we are facing a rapidly changing environment, we have planned events dedicated to specific topics of interest in the area of mental health and wellness in the hopes that graduate students can find safe spaces, interact with their peers, and educate themselves and others. As circumstances and university mandates change, we will continue to update and modify events to provide the best possible experience to UCalgary graduate students while complying with safety regulations.  

In line with our commitment to education, we have planned a variety of Speaker Series events throughout the 2020-21 academic year. Our speakers will cover topics such as building balance and addressing our own stress, how to effectively take a break during term breaks, mental health in relationships, and navigating the student-supervisor relationship. Additionally, during the month of March, a week will be dedicated to speaker events focused on different health conditions that span the mental health fields such as eating disorders, brain health, trauma, loss of identity through transition, and mood and anxiety disorders.  

Our efforts will also be focused on actively participating in Destress Week (November and April). The five subcommittees under the Student Experience and Events Committee will come together to offer students a variety of events and activities to relax and de-stress prior to exams and the end of the term. As part of Destress Week, the MHWS will be continuing its efforts to provide Gratitude Journals, the most successful initiative last year, to graduate students. The MHWS understands that a members of our graduate community may not physically be in Calgary this term, or would like more sustainable means to practice their gratitude, thus electronic copies will be made available, in addition to the standard physical journals.  

The MHWS is committed to a campaign of raising awareness of mental health, and as such, will continue participating in events such as Bell Let’s Talk Day. We hope to facilitate graduate students’ awareness to available resources, and opportunities to find supports and take positive action in mental health and wellness.  

Our first event, “Building Balance – Tips and Tricks to Manage Your Stress”, will help you to create work-life balance, structure, and integrate stress reduction skills into your daily life. The event is FREE, and you can register for it HERE

We encourage graduate students to participate and stay informed! Plus, all of our events come with your-choice prizes! Updates and more information on events will be posted on social media (@ucalgary_mhwc) and in the GSA’s News and Views.   

Social Media and Awareness

Instagram: @ucalgary_mhwc 

There exists a gap between the mental health resources available to student and the mental health resources accessible to students. Mental health and wellness support and resources are often inaccessible simply because students are not aware of them. The purpose of our social media and awareness initiative is get the word out and ensure that students know about the supports available to them.  

We continue to host “Wellness Wednesdays” on Instagram. This includes posting about wellness resources so that students are aware of the supports available to them. The resources that we have promoted in the past include the Centre for Suicide Prevention, the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, and the Campus Mental Health Strategy Mental Wellness webinars, various free wellness apps, and more. We recognize our responsibility to promote resources available at the Wellness Centre as well, and for that reason we are currently working on designing “Wellness Wednesday” social media content sharing Wellness Centre resources. We also use our Instagram account to promote various mental health and wellness events, including those described under “Events”, and to share evidence-based information on mental health. 

To increase our social media impact, we are actively working to increase our follower count through hashtags, frequent posting, increasing the amount of accounts we follow, and engaging with other accounts through stories and comments. We are excited to grow our social media presence and help communicate to students the various mental health and wellness resources that are available to them.  

Resource Development

The MHWS has been hard at work developing a comprehensive resource guide for mental health and wellness resources available at UCalgary, within Calgary, and within Alberta more broadly. This up-to-date guide provides an overview of resources that may be beneficial for undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, staff, and faculty at UCalgary. It includes updated information relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic, including changes to hours and services.  

The resource guide can be found here (to be updated shortly). A brief overview is provided below: 

Mental Health Supports and Access 

  • Emergency and urgent supports (e.g. crisis lines, available 24/7) 
  • Counselling supports and resources 
  • General mental health supports and resources (e.g. addiction, substance use, harm reduction, sexual abuse, family violence) 
  • UCalgary mental health resources (e.g. sexual violence support, students at risk) 
  • UCalgary general resources and supports (e.g. campus security, faith and spirituality, Q centre) 
  • UCalgary student supports (e.g. ombudsperson, student accessibility services) 
  • Faith-based resources in Calgary 
  • Education (e.g. webinars, courses) 
  • Health promotion resources (e.g. mindfulness, physical activity, grounding) 

We are hopeful that this resource guide will become a working document, ever evolving and staying up to date. Please provide any feedback or comments on the resource guide to wellness.gsa@ucalgary.ca  

In terms of general student resources, a number of resources are available at UCalgary, which have been consolidated in the Guide to Services for Students 2019/2020. Available resources include services for Indigenous and International students, career services, accessibility, residence and off campus housing, information technologies, conflict coaching, and more. 

Capacity Development

This academic year, the MHWS is fortunate to partner with the Wellbeing 400 course, “Capstone in Mental Wellbeing”. This course aims to foster change in mental health and wellbeing in communities, while building capacity amongst the community members. Starting in winter semester, the MHWS will partner with students from the WELL400 course to conduct a needs assessment of graduate student mental health. We will identify barriers and enablers to accessing mental health supports and resources on campus, and to identify knowledge gaps between what services UCalgary provides, and what services graduate students are aware of, and use. We will then identify possible solutions to address these barriers.  

This initiative also provides opportunities for members of the MHWS to mentor, educate, and provide support to undergraduate students in the WELL400 course. Committee members can share their unique insights into mental health and wellbeing, mental health in graduate school, and provide overall mentorship for the capstone project.  

We are very excited about this new partnership and are hopeful that it will result in a long-lasting relationship between the MHWS and the WELL400 course- both learning and growing with the goal to support graduate student mental health at UCalgary.  

Advocacy

Currently, the Faculty of Graduate Studies – Student-Supervisor Checklist includes a number of key components to fostering a successful student-supervisor relationship, yet an emphasis on Mental Health and Wellness is lacking. While the final section of the checklist includes the heading “Well-being,” its sub-components lack detail and a clear, actionable items.

As part of the MHWS’s initiative to advocate for the mental well-being of graduate students, our aim is to propose a modification to the current “Well-being” section of the checklist, to include the addition of mental health resources available to students, more details on how supervisors can advocate for the wellness of their students, official “mental health days” for students, and an overall clarity on how mental health and wellness is considered a priority within the graduate student experience. We hope that with the modification of this checklist, we can enhance the mental well-being of students through an official agreement that supports the importance of mental health and improved student-supervisor communication.