In a TED Talk from 2009, writer Elizabeth Gilbert muses about how uncomfortable she is with the assumption that “creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked.” The majority of Gilbert's thoughtful and humorous monologue is about finding sanity amidst both success and failure, or in other words, about finding a way to break this link. Earlier this year, the University of Toronto Graduate Architecture Landscape and Design Student Union’s (GALDSU) set out to do just that – break the link between creativity and suffering at their school – and start a productive dialogue about mental health. GALDSU began by gathering the facts through a mental health study of their peers, the results of which we discussed several months ago.
To learn more about what's happened at their school (and beyond) since it was published, we sat down with Joel Leon, the man who spearheaded the effort and the newly elected president of the student union, as well as Elise Hunchuck, the vice-president of the student union.
AD: How did the students at your school react to the report?
Joel: In September, the mental health initiative had the general support of student representatives within GALDSU’s council, but there were only a handful of students willing to put in the work to make it happen. What’s amazing now is that we have so many more students interested in participating to move this initiative forward. It’s almost overwhelming – and that’s probably the most exciting thing. I have this feeling we’re starting to break down the apathy. Students are willing to invest their time to achieve collective goals now that they know their student union actually does something for them. It's amazing how a single report can give such a boost to student empowerment and help build a sense of community.
AD: Did any of the findings in the report surprise you?
Joel: I think one of the most shocking things was that financial needs weren’t identified as a major stress factor. This is a really big conversation topic within the university, and it was surprising that almost no one mentioned it during the survey. It's clear that there are other problems taking priority over financial needs, which really sets us apart from other faculties at the university. It really confirmed some of our preliminary assumptions – we’re different than other faculties, and not just a little bit.
Elise: To add to that, our faculty's professional graduate programs are not funded in the same way other faculty programs are. For example, doctoral students at the University of Toronto often receive funding equivalent to their tuition fees, if not more. That's not the case for us, and so perhaps financial stress is more readily understood, if not accepted, as a possibility coming into the program.
AD: What’s happened at your school since the report was published?
Joel: We’re reforming. Everything we’re working on now has come out of the report as well as a workshop about how our students use space, which was actually geared towards understanding what spaces will be needed in our new building (scheduled to open in 2016). We recently did a walk-through of the building with student services, IT, facility management, and the financial group because we want to improve our current space in the meantime. We went floor-by-floor identifying small physical improvements that we think will have the biggest impact on student health and well-being. Additionally, our student union has committed to funds and physical labour for the renovation of our student-run café and the graduate student lounge.
When we presented the report to the faculty council, it made for a very lively discussion. There was a split. Sometimes the room had a negative reaction based on the fear that the report would portray a negative image of the faculty, or that if we stop doing things the way we’re doing them we’re not going to be competitive in the architecture world. Others pointed towards the need of having this discussion, not just among students but also among the teaching and support staff. Out of that meeting came a conversation, which is still ongoing, about whether or not the survey should eventually become a joint project between the faculty and students and if mental health should be taken into account when evaluating courses and altering the program. It's a very difficult discussion to have, and we were extremely happy the faculty was willing to partake in it. We look forward to continue these conversations with both the faculty and staff during this upcoming school year.
At a larger scale, we just submitted a paper to the Canadian Accreditation Board on integrating metrics with health and well-being into the accreditation process. We’re proposing that you shouldn’t just have the best faculty and the nicest building, but also the healthiest students and staff. We’ve also had conversations with other Canadian universities with architecture programs about conducting a nationwide survey to see how things compare and contrast. We want to know what problems are specific to the University of Toronto and what the bigger issues within our discipline are.
AD: For those interested in making changes at their own schools, what advice do you have?
Joel: First, you need facts. It’s very difficult to talk about issues like mental health without data to back up your claims. It’s funny that in a discipline where data representation is imperative, where we measure everything and represent very abstract ideas and processes, we never use our skills to look at ourselves. And that was our greatest strength I would say – that initial report representing our findings and saying, “These are the conditions.” It also helped that we branched out for help. We talked to the Department of Psychology so that we had confidence in our methodology. Don’t wait for the bureaucracy or anyone else to answer before getting something started. If you think it’s a big issue, then it’s up to you to start it. Having a strong student union is really important – if it doesn’t exist, then make it.
Also remember that it’s not a confrontation because that closes every door and every opportunity. We’re not approaching this from an antagonistic angle – a lot of conversations about the report have been framed as the students versus the administration. Sure, we’re pointing out problems, but we’re not blaming the administration for them. If they didn’t do anything about them now that we’ve sat down with them, laid down the facts, and discussed solutions, then that would be a different story. It’s not us versus them, if anything, it’s that we haven’t revisited how we teach architecture in a very long time. The people teaching us are part of the system and suffer the same pressures we do since they were similarly educated.
AD: People have reacted differently to the report online – what did you think of the comments?
Joel: “This is what architecture is, if you don’t enjoy it, you should get out of it. The people who don’t work hard are the ones failing.” I found these comments really interesting and quite unfortunate. Why is complaining about our poor working conditions perceived as a weakness? Do we not deserve better as a profession? This culture of ‘survival of the fittest’ is not healthy nor is it conducive to fostering the diversity of personalities and roles that make life within our disciplines. There are many roles within architecture that don’t require the Type A personality that this system seems to foster.
Elise: I agree with what Joel said earlier – unfortunately a lot of online commentary has framed the report as students versus administration. But the faculty and administration are as embedded within the culture as we are, if not more. Faculty and sessional instructors are prone to similar work-based, financial and personal stressors as a result of this system, of which we are all a part of. Again, I think it’s important to remember that this is not just the case here at the University of Toronto, but at other architecture, landscape, and design faculties as well.
What is most promising about the report is that it has given the student union, faculty, and administration tangible elements to focus on in efforts to improve the student experience, and by extension, the experience of those we are working with.