by John Leung
“I fully believe that mental health is the social challenge of our generation.” — Johnny Mercer, British politician
Why the Student Voice Project?
Mental health is, without a doubt, one of the greatest challenges in this generation. In Canada, there are shockingly high rates of depression, anti-depressants usage and suicide; the issue of mental health can easily be seen as the “elephant in the room” in our modern day society as we often don’t talk about this problem. Therefore, the 2016 Student Voice Project was held, for three days during reading week: U of T students gathered to discuss the stigma around mental health and examine effective strategies to support those who have mental health challenges.
No ordinary event
I was originally a bit hesitant when I signed up for the forum, because I thought it would reflect other mental health events that I have attended. However, during the first day, I realized that this was no ordinary forum compared to previous mental health conferences that I have attended. Throughout the three days, we had fantastic guest speakers. The speakers included Melissa Corcoran (a mental health specialist who has dealt with bipolar disorder and a drug addiction), Patrick De Belen (a local slam poet), and Toni De Mello (UTSC’s Diversity and Equity Officer). The guest speakers were very insightful and engaging; they had a lot of in-depth knowledge and experience of the mental health system at U of T and in the community. Many of the guest speakers were so powerful with their speeches that they touched the hearts of everyone, including me.
Besides the fabulous guest speakers, we (the student participants) had fantastic discussions about the stigma and support systems around mental health. Discussion topics included the barriers to accessing mental health services and advocating for mental health. Personally, I believe the best part of the discussions was the opportunity for us, the students, to discuss the issues that we were most concerned about.
Exploration through activities
The activities we did were very engaging because it required creativity and a lot of critical thinking. On the first day, we did an activity where we wrote on sticky notes reasons why students would not want to receive mental health treatment. Then we placed the sticky notes on sheets of paper with a particular barrier, such as gender, economic, citizenship, etc.
For two afternoons, we spent our time creating a piece of art that depicted a mental health story or message that we wanted to share. Participants had the choice to create a zine (a small story in the layout of a magazine), a written poem, or a painting. All the art sessions were very appealing, especially since Patrick De Belen led the poetry workshop and the zines was the activity that organizers promoted to me. However, I ended up pursuing a painting because I wanted to explore my visual artistic side.
Originally, I wasn’t sure what I was doing. But after a while of experimenting with the acrylic paints and creating random abstract shapes, I finally realized what I wanted to say in my artwork. My painting is called “Hidden in the Dark” because you never know who is suffering in the dark from mental health challenges. I am very happy with the way it turned out.
Creating a sense of community
The community atmosphere that was built in three days was remarkable. As well, the people I met and the memories I made were incredible. I would highly recommend students who have a passion or interest in mental health to participate in next year’s Student Voice Project.
The 3rd Annual Student Voice Project at New College was generated by the effort and engagement over 3 days – 6 hours a day, 18 hours in total – of over 40 students from UTSC, UTM and the St. George campus. I think those stats are impressive – they demonstrate just how much student interest there is in mental health issues and support. What do you think? Comment below!