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Student Voice Project provides safe space for mental health awareness and discussion

Untitled", a painting by Priscilla Zheyue, was part of the Student Voice Project showcase

Picture about 70 students in the Wilson Lounge of New College. Some are tapping at their laptops. Some are chatting with friends. Many are there to participate in the Student Voice Project Showcase.

“Student Voice Project is for everyone,” says Jill Charnaw-Burger, ‎associate director of student life and leadership at New College and the facilitator of this three-year-old program dedicated to undergraduate mental health and awareness.

“We look at things on a wellness continuum. Students find themselves at all points on that continuum.”

SVP takes place at a quiet time at the University of Toronto: reading week in February. On three consecutive days the participants address two critical questions: What is my story? What am I here to advocate for?

Answers arise through group discussion but other means as well. Some participants create zines, self-published folded folios brimming with words, pictures and creative montages. Some voice their thoughts and feelings through spontaneous, spoken poetry.

Many use the medium of painting. Several examples were on display in the Student Voice Project Showcase, a retrospective gathering. Most were abstract but sunlight, shadows, flowers and expressively contoured human figures were often discernable.

Question, a painting by Freya Gandhi from U of T Mississauga, places a bold question mark in the middle of a flurry of colours.

“Colours meshed together signify how people who are not mentally well tend to feel,” reads her accompanying inscription. “They feel many emotions at once and are often confused as to how to interpret them.

“They feel invalidated and this painting is dedicated to them. It’s okay to be confused and it’s okay to feel many emotions at once.”

Five students from New College spoke at the Showcase about their positive Student Voice Project experience.

photo of student with art

Madeline Peters (above) is a third-year student and third-time participant who remarked on the upward trajectory of her experience. “The first year reminded me that I had a lot of work to do,” she said. “I opened my eyes. The second year, I was going to do my zine and it would be about how I overcame so much. I started writing and thought, ‘Oh, this is actually not resolved.’

“It was resolved this year and I was in a much better place. It was special to be able to come back and see the progress I have made and put that into art.”

“SVP is really close to my heart,” said Ola Skudlarska, a fourth-year student. “Finding a genuine space where students can open up about things, a space to be a little messy, is something many try to accomplish but not so many succeed.

“There is something to be said for the kind of community we created in three days.”

SVP started in 2014 with 14 participants. Almost 40 enrolled last year. Enrolment this February was close to 60.

“Some students come to campus with a diagnosis and are looking for additional support and ways to find a community,” Charnaw-Burger says. “Some get a diagnosis while being a student here.”

Others have a family member or loved one who is touched by mental illness. The object of SVP is to provide a safe space for anyone who wants talk about what it means to be well and feel well.

Second-year student Arman Sadrzadeh emphasized the fight against stigma. Sarah Wong was impressed by the point made by a poetry coach: “Don’t dull your story with doubt.”

A growing success, the Student Voice Project is now on the verge of expanding. “As we have reached a near-maximum capacity for our February reading week program, we are now exploring other ways and times of year where we might be able to offer the initiative,” Charnaw-Burger said.

“We do not have anything confirmed at this point, but we have heard from students that they want more opportunities like this.”

The New College initiative, which is open to all U of T students, is one of many on all three campuses devoted to mental health and health awareness.

Mental health support at Trinity College got a boost in December with a $1.5 million donation by alumna Dr. Anne Steacy. The Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education has launched the Mental Health and Physical Activity Research Centre (MPARC), which is dedicated to the promotion of mental health through exercise. At the University of Toronto Scarborough the Flourish program encourages students to use their “signature strengths” to overcome adversity. Across all campuses, Exam Jam sessions offer the chance to create art, plant flowers, play with friendly dogs and more.

Read more about Exam Jam at UTM

U of T Chancellor Michael Wilson has taken a leading role in the promotion of mental health as chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. U of T Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr is a professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work who remains at the forefront of mental health advocacy. She is co-author of the textbook Mental Health Social Work Practice in Canada.

Mental health remains a vital research priority in many U of T divisions. Counselling, therapy and other mental health services such as breathing and sleep-health workshops are offered across U of T. Find out more at: