Life as a graduate student brings unique stressors, and it can be hard to know where to turn for help. That’s why the Faculty of Graduate Studies offers GradConnect Wellness Services, a suite of services to support and enhance the mental health and well-being of York graduate students. From workshops to one-on-one consultations to a certificate program and more, FGS has a variety of options for students as they pursue their academic goals.
Sarah Irwin-Gardner, the manager of Graduate Student Wellness Services, is a registered psychotherapist with broad experience working with students. We asked her to walk us through some of what GradConnect Wellness Services is offering.
Let’s talk about some of the mental health and wellness initiatives that are offered here at FGS, starting with the Wellness Consultation Service. How does it work?
In late 2017 we started a Wellness Consultation Service specifically for grad students here at York University. We wanted to prioritize fast-access and ensure grad students were able to self-book their appointments so they didn’t have to go through a lengthy process to get connected with support. To book a wellness consultation, grad students go to our website, look at the calendar, and find a time that works for them and then book by filling out a few details like their name and student number. There is no other process to go through before coming in for the session. The service follows a single-session counseling model where the focus is on whatever is most important to the student that day. We often dedicate time to developing a plan for next steps, talking about coping skills, or identifying small changes that could be meaningful and make a difference in the next days or weeks. We can also discuss additional resources and services that could be a good fit based on what the student is looking for. Sometimes I’ve sat with students who say, “I don’t know where to go next. Here’s what’s going on in my life, and I’m ready to get support but I don’t know what’s out there.” Maybe they’ve never sought help at York or in Canada and need help navigating the mental health system.
There’s a really broad range of things that students can choose to focus on in session and it’s really about what’s most meaningful to them. While the service is delivered as a single-session, it is not single access. That means that it’s not restricted to one-time use. Sometimes a student will come in, have that first session, and they might decide a few weeks or even months down the road that it would be helpful to come back to discuss additional steps, or maybe something new has arisen. They can book that appointment as needed. It’s intentionally very flexible to try to meet a broad range of needs.
There is a Graduate Student Wellness Initiative Fund — what is that?
The Graduate Student Wellness Initiative Fund supports individual or groups of graduate students at York who want to run a wellness initiative for the graduate student community. Up to $1500 in seed funding can be awarded to help implement a project or initiative that will support the mental health and wellness of the graduate community here at York.
We’ve had this operating now since the last academic year, and we’ve seen applications for an amazing range of activities like peer-support groups, art projects, podcasts, screening of films focusing on mental health, panels, conferences – all sorts of innovative and meaningful ideas. I think it’s a great opportunity for students to get some financial support to implement their really good ideas about what might help promote wellness for the community.
This is a partnership with Learning Skills Services and comes out of the understanding that graduate school can present unique challenges, new stress, and increased pressure. We want to help equip graduate students with academic and wellness skills they can put up against challenges that might arise and to help them thrive and have a meaningful experience while at York. It’s a six session program focused on developing personal wellness and learning skills geared to graduate students and is open to grads at any point/stage of their program.
The learning skills portion covers topics like time management, motivation, and developing a growth mindset. For wellness, we consider a holistic framework for what wellness is and then focus in part on developing helpful strategies for coping with stress, addressing self-criticism/perfectionism, enhancing self-compassion, and using tools such as mindfulness, relaxation, and gratitude. We want to help students tap into their own personal knowledge, skill, ability and wisdom while making connections and learning something new along the way.
What is the Meet for a Meal program?
Meet for a Meal is a fun opportunity for new and experienced (in at least their 2nd year of studies) graduate students to get together over a meal where informal mentoring and support can occur in a relaxed and low-pressure environment. The idea is for those students who have had the experience of being new to grad studies to be able to offer general advice, support, and connection to newer students. Students will be matched in pairs or small groups and will receive a credit of up to $20 per person for a meeting at the et al. Faculty & Graduate Student Café and Pub located on the Keele Campus. There is no expectation for ongoing mentorship after the meal and the date and time of the meal can be mutually agreed upon by the matched students to take place between February 1st–March 31st, 2020.
There are many resources on campus beyond Grad Wellness. What are some of them?
Student Counselling & Development, located in room N110 of the Bennett Centre for Student Services, offers a suite of services including walk-in counselling, short-term counselling, workshops, and groups. The walk-in counselling service launched in the fall of 2019 and welcomes students (undergraduate and graduate) to come in for a session anytime Monday through Friday starting at 9:00 a.m. with the last sessions being offered at 3:00pm. This walk-in, no appointment needed, model allows for quick-access to in-person support which can make a significant difference for students who are dealing with a new stressor, emerging mental health concern, or are looking for support around an ongoing concern.
Another important resource in Ontario is the Good2Talk helpline, which is a 24/7 free and confidential help line specifically for post-secondary students in Ontario. Their phone number is 1-866-925-5454, available any time day and night. The folks working in that service are very familiar with how the particular stresses of life as a student can interact with everything else in a person’s life.
In addition to the on-campus supports, there is sometimes opportunity to engage in off-campus resources. For example, grad students who are also York University employees (e.g., working as a Teaching Assistant) have access to our Employee & Family Assistance Program (EFAP), which offers a suite of services including nutrition advice, legal advice, and mental health counselling. The EFAP is available to the employee as well as any dependents and spouse or partner. I also encourage grad students to become familiar with their extended health benefits plan in order to determine if accessing private services in the community is a good fit. Extended Health Benefits.
Some of these difficult feelings may be new to students, and they may not have a context for what to do with them. What advice would you give to students who are struggling for the first time?
I like to think about the types of things we can do to support our mental health and wellness as existing in three broad categories. I would encourage a student who is concerned about their mental health or is struggling emotionally for the first time, to think about tapping into formal supports, informal supports, as well as consider the things they can do themselves that might help. Formal supports include some of the resources we talked about today and are the types of services or people whose job it is to offer support. For example, graduate students can come in for a wellness consultation, go for a walk-in counselling session at Student Counselling & Development, visit their family doctor, or call the Good2Talk helpline. Informal supports include the people in our lives who care about us and want to help. Calling or making plans with a supportive family member or friend can go a long way. The key here is to not suffer alone but to reach out for connection and support. The third category of support, ourselves, involves thinking about the things we can do to improve how we are feelings and coping. Asking yourself questions like “what are the skills for coping with stress that are sometimes effective for me?” “What are the things that make me feel balance?” “What might help me most right now to de-stress or for things to feel just a bit better?” “Am I getting enough of what I need and if not, what needs to change?”. Sleep, exercise, and nutrition are key areas to think about too when stress is increasing. Often looking for ways to make small changes or improvements in these areas can make a big difference. None of us are perfect in these areas and that’s not the goal, the idea is to take one small step in the direction you want to go. Attending to your needs, often referred to as “self-care” is a foundational part of coping with stress and can involve any of those steps already mentioned plus anything else of meaning to you. Grad students have many demands on their time and it is understandable how it can seem as though it would be counterproductive to dedicate time to seeing friends, going for a walk, reading something not related to academics, or whatever it is that might help to relieve some stress and feel more balance but the reality is that without any room for the things you need, burnout is more likely and academics, relationships, and importantly your sense of wellness might suffer. So giving yourself permission to spend some time doing things that help you feel well matters. Remind yourself that when you’re spending time in service of your well-being it is also in service of other things you might value like your relationships and academic progress.
There are also a lot of really fantastic self-help resources on the market. If you’re someone who’s not quite sure about reaching out to people – and that’s okay – go online or to a book store. Look for resources that come from reputable sources and seem appealing to you.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that experiencing a mental health or wellness concern is common and there are things that can help you to feel better and supports available to help you get there.