It was at the July 2020 meeting of the Graduate Philosophy Student Union (GPSU) that Andriy Bilenkyy and Alexandra Gustafson, both PhD students in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto (U of T), decided to address the elephant in the room: more needed to be done to support the hardworking and ambitious community of grads when things did not go well. Yes, valuable mental health resources existed at the University and within the City of Toronto, but navigating them could prove complex. So why not create a mental health liaison position within the GPSU to help maneuver the possibilities?
To their surprise and delight, the other students present at the meeting not only embraced the idea but immediately came up with suggestions on how to extend it. And so, following a few animated discussions, the GPSU Mental Health & Disability (MH&D) Caucus was born.
What to Expect from the MH&D Caucus
According to Bilenkyy, the caucus “unites members of our department’s graduate community that experience mental health and disability–related situations and challenges” in the pursuit of three principal aims: 1) the existence of a friendly, accommodating, and non-judgmental space in which peers can share their experiences and support one another; 2) the creation of an advocacy force that will assist in ongoing improvements to make the department an ever-kinder space conducive to everyone’s well-being; and 3) the broader de-stigmatization of MH&D challenges in academia.
How does it work? So far, the caucus, which is co-chaired by Gustafson and Kristen Beard, has created three platforms of peer support: students can come together at casual monthly Disabili-Teas to discuss issues in a supportive, non-competitive environment—or just to decompress. (During our pandemic times, these teas, like all the caucus’s offerings, of course take place online.) They may also choose to attend any of the bi-weekly Office Hours for Well-Being, hosted by Beard every second Wednesday between 3 and 5 PM. In this camera-optional space, Beard, who has a certification in peer support, will lend a sympathetic ear to callers struggling with anything from school-induced anxiety to grief to the simple winter blahs. On Gustafson’s suggestion, the caucus also operates an active and well-attended Discord server with multiple discussion channels.
If they hit a particularly rough spot late at night, students might sign into the “Can Anyone Talk Now” chatroom on Discord for some support. They might also choose to discuss the ever-present perils of perfectionism or impostor syndrome in another section, or seek out advice from their peers on a particularly pesky teaching situation. But it’s not all struggle and worry on Discord: it’s also community spirit built on the latest memes, cute cat photos, and “(coffee) mug shots aka selfies,” Bilenkyy assures.
The Importance of Community
Community stands as the unifying concept behind the initiative. Beard, Bilenkyy, Gustafson, and Emma McClure, another driving force behind the MH&D Caucus, all decided to dedicate energies to the project in an effort to strengthen their community of peers. They didn’t want others to struggle quietly as they had with mental health challenges or diagnoses while going through the considerable rigours of a demanding graduate program. Says Gustafson, who lives with both Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Persistent Depressive Disorder: “One of my main professional goals is to help create a more humane academia: that starts with making public talk of our mental health and other diagnoses less taboo. A publicly recognized forum for private discussion of these topics is a first step.”
At the same time, the organizers never tire of emphasizing that any philosophy grad student—with or without diagnosis, struggling with something major or minor, common or uncommon—is welcome at the MH&D events and platforms. After all, everyone experiences difficulties sometimes, maybe especially in graduate school and during a seemingly never-ending pandemic, and acknowledging this fact does not diminish the very real and specific challenges of diagnosed conditions. Coming together in an open forum normalizes the feelings, provides support and solidarity, and offers learning experiences to everyone present.
Still, her own experience of fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by chronic pain and fatigue, made it important for McClure to see the D for disability added to the caucus name. Diagnosed in the middle of her PhD program, she felt “completely disconnected from the department,” McClure admits. “Mental health is a big issue and a maximally inclusive umbrella, since everyone needs to maintain mental health, especially right now,” she adds. “But many grad students also experience the onset or worsening symptoms of a disability during grad school, and it’s important to have a place to talk about those experiences and offer concrete supports.”
Enthusiastic feedback and participation from the graduate community suggest that the GPSU MH&D Caucus has filled a need in the department—and might serve as inspiration for other groups of students to band together in peer support alongside any institutional resources that may exist. For the moment, the caucus is focused on maintaining last semester’s progress, but it is also taking steps to expand its undergraduate outreach and thinking about the inclusion of alumni. Once the pandemic has passed, Beard suggests, “a Mental Health Retreat Weekend trip” may even hover on the horizon. It would undoubtedly be a treat!
If you are a Philosophy graduate student and would like to join the Discord server, or if you have any further questions about the project, you can reach out to any of the four organizers.
Read on for some quirky details about them and for their curated list of self-care tips.
Kristen Beard, email@example.com
”I was born and raised in Tennessee, where all of my family still lives. I’ve been married for five years and am a big fan of knitting and meditation . . . though I can’t say I’ve ever combined the two.”
Andriy Bilenkyy, firstname.lastname@example.org
“Before becoming a full-time student, I worked in the hospitality industry for seven years, doing all sorts of things from washing dishes at a diner to being a buffet cook at the Rogers Centre. At some point, I worked as a server at a medieval-themed dining theatre, where occasionally I was tasked with performing the role of the ‘castle’s’ executioner, guarding the entrance to the ‘dungeon’ with a big scary axe in my hands. (No patrons or employees were harmed in the process).”
Alexandra Gustafson, email@example.com
“I have a background in creative writing, especially poetry. This might be an undeserved title, but I think I’m the most tattooed member of the department! Nate Charlow may have me beat. At any rate, all challengers welcomed.”
Emma McClure, firstname.lastname@example.org
“One thing most people don’t know about me is that my quarantine hobby is teaching myself to play bridge, in preparation for old age. I’ve long looked forward to being an old person, hoping to model myself after my great-grandmother, who played cards with me when I was young and didn’t mind trouncing a ten-year-old. She took such great joy in everything she did.”
Eight Self-Care Tips
- Create (and maintain!) strong boundaries between your work and your personal life.
- Acknowledge the difference between work and effort. Sometimes when struggling with a problem, take a break and believe in the power of your unconscious mind to solve it while you’re doing an unrelated activity.
- Give yourself credit for non-philosophy achievements, even if they’re small, like making a stressful phone call.
- Be assertive about your mental health needs. You owe yourself the duty of care, and that sometimes means saying no or withdrawing from engagements. Choose your needs over getting more work done when the two are in competition.
- Use your research and observation skills to learn more about your mental health states and needs.
- Don’t be alone in dealing with your challenges—reach out!
- When dealing with a chronic MH&D situation, try to be creative in managing it and don’t expect to find a solution that will take care of it once and for all.
- Resist the pressure toward constant productivity and embrace your hobbies or pastimes, whether they are painting or binge-watching anime.