After months of consultation with the Peer Support Centre (PSC) and other mental health organizations on campus, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) executives have developed a proposal to create a permanent space in the Shatner building dedicated to mental health.
The PSC, formerly known as the Peer Support Network (PSN), was until recently a student group on campus without any affiliation to McGill or to SSMU. This September the PSC applied to become a SSMU club and was granted interim status. The PSC will be eligible for full club status in January.
SSMU VP Clubs & Services Kimber Bialik outlined the plan in an email to The Daily: “As of right now, we are proposing Rooms 429 and 430 on the fourth floor of the SSMU Building as the ‘Mental Health Space.’ […] We intend for Room 429 to be a space where student groups can offer group support sessions, [while] Room 430 would focus on direct resource provision, including informational resources and peer support.”
“The proposal for this room includes renovations that would create two smaller segments of the room that could be used for private one-on-one support sessions that could be operated by the Peer Support Centre or a similar group,” Bialik added.
The renovations should cost roughly $30,000, Bialik explained, with the necessary funds to be provided through grants. Bialik and VP University Affairs Chloe Rourke, who has also been heavily involved in the project, hope to see the proposal brought to SSMU Legislative Council by the end of November.
The proposal is in accordance with a motion passed at SSMU Council on April 9 that strengthened SSMU’s ties with the PSC, and mandated the VP Clubs & Services and VP University Affairs to “prioritize the creation of a permanent, physical space in the SSMU building dedicated to mental health,” consulting with relevant student organizations in the process. It also fulfills part of SSMU’s Mental Health Five-Year Plan.
“Not having a more permanent, central location [is a problem], because it gets really confusing with multiple hours and multiple locations.”
At the moment, the PSC operates out of four different locations on campus: the McGill Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (MORSL), the Strathcona Music Building, University Hall, and McGill Mental Health Service (MMHS), using each space for three or four hours per week.
“We’re really trying to become more available for students,” said Quinn Ashkenazy, U3 Psychology student and the chair of PSC, in an interview with The Daily. “Not having a more permanent, central location [is a problem], because it gets really confusing with multiple hours and multiple locations. Sometimes you just want to talk to someone [right away] but wait, where are they? They’re over here, they’re over there.”
The bottom line, said Ashkenazy, is that “there shouldn’t be barriers to accessing peer support.”
Ashkenazy pointed to other Canadian campuses where such arrangements already exist. “For example, [at] the University of Alberta, on an average day, their peer support program could see between seven and eight people,” she said.
Bialik emphasized, however, that the proposed space would not belong exclusively to the PSC, but would be shared by other mental health groups on campus. “The proposal as it currently stands tries to make this space as multi-purpose as possible,” wrote Bialik.
The creation of a student-run mental health space comes amid criticism from SSMU clubs regarding Bialik’s decision to convert club office spaces on the fourth floor of the Shatner building into bookable spaces.
“The old club office structure provided benefit to very few groups, and the elimination of that outdated system provided an opportunity to create more multi-purpose space.”
“The old club office structure provided benefit to very few groups, and the elimination of that outdated system provided an opportunity to create more multi-purpose space on the fourth floor that can benefit a far greater number of people,” Bialik said. “A ‘Mental Health Space’ is an excellent example of the kind of space that has a wider benefit and has significant student support.”
Indeed, many students have voiced concern in recent years over long wait times required in order to see a specialist at MMHS, which can last up to five months, as reported by The Daily. Earlier this month, Nancy Low and Giuseppe Alfonsi, clinical directors at MMHS, had told The Daily about their intention to encourage peer-to-peer mental health initiatives, in order to relieve pressure on clinical staff.
Asked about the long-term efficiency of this plan, Ashkenazy responded with enthusiasm.
“I think it’s the most sustainable way to proceed,” she said. “To start building communities of support on campus with peer-to-peer [support], I think that’s really empowering. And often, I think if you can start to talk about things early, it gets to the stage where maybe you don’t need a professional.”