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Opening the conversation about mental health

The students who created Minds Matter Magazine take a multi-faceted approach to talking about mental health.

Two years ago, UTSC undergrad Karen Young began a journey of discovery into the growing incidence of mental illness at post-secondary institutions.

A series of personal experiences, conversations and observations led her to conclude that students at U of T and at other post-secondary institutions in Canada and around the world were lacking the information they needed about mental health. And so, the fifth-year student of psychology and health studies decided to act.

The result is Minds Matter Magazine, a new online hub of information at UTSC that aims to humanize perceptions towards mental health and explore proactive approaches to helping students, friends and family of students cope in an increasingly fast-paced, stressful world.

“Really, our magazine is a form of social medicine,” says Young, 22, who launched TEDxUTSC in 2013 and is the 2015 recipient of the 3M National Student Fellowship Award. “It’s broadening the conversation and looking at mental health from a multi-disciplinary perspective, a multi-faceted perspective, and in years to come, a multimedia-oriented magazine.

“Ultimately, I just wanted to create the right environment for me and for other students on campus.”


Encouraging conversation

What sets Minds Matter Magazine apart from similar websites is the fact that it is a student volunteer labour of love. About two dozen students, all with a passion for the subject matter, spend countless hours sourcing information and writing and editing articles that build awareness and encourage conversation about the subject.

Young’s hope is that the magazine will foster a proactive approach to well-being, where people who are directly or indirectly affected by mental illness may not need to seek professional help to get better.

Even in its infancy, Minds Matter Magazine aims to be much more than a magazine. Central to its mandate is to promote "actionable awareness" through the medium of a magazine. The team is working with UTSC’s Registrar’s Office and AccessAbility Services to create a scholarship to support student mental health advocacy,. 

The magazine is also building a “champions” program, recruiting students, faculty, staff and others who will be  asked to help expand the project to the broader U of T community and, in the long run, to other universities in Canada and abroad.

The magazine’s team recently pitched their project to The Hub– and won the maximum amount of $7,000 in a Dragon’s Den-style competition. The funding is delivered through three student stipends of $2,250 each to Young and her two co-directors of operations and partnerships, Aryel Maharaj and Allyssa Fernandez. The final $250 covers incidentals.

The funding does come with strings attached: the team must register a company, develop a brand and a business plan and attend workshops, all by the end of March.

Hub Director Gray Graffam says Hub funding is deliberately not tied to an actual company: “Instead, we invest in the students who are starting a company.”

He says the Minds Matter team’s pitch fit well with the competition’s criteria in that is consistent with the Hub’s mission of promoting entrepreneurship in the tech sector, it has the right team, the idea is feasible, and the team is committed. “Plus, their pitch was really good,” he says.


Reaching beyond UTSC

Already the Minds Matter group has begun to explore the feasibility of starting new Minds Matter chapters at other Canadian post-secondary institutions.

The website has also been viewed from Brazil and China, says Maharaj, a UTSC alumnus who joined the magazine in May as a volunteer co-director of operations and partnerships.

“All of these people will ultimately have a chance to participate because mental health is a global health issue, not just something that affects one of us or a couple of us,” says Maharaj, who graduated in June 2015 with a degree in neuroscience and psychology. “But we’re starting very micro and moving macro as we go. Idea generation is never going to be an issue with us.”


For students, by students

Focussing the group’s ambition has been a task for the magazine’s 10-person advisory committee that includes Jeffrey Dvorkin, lecturer and director of UTSC’s journalism program.

Dvorkin was recruited by Young about a year ago to help guide the magazine project. With  an uncommon background in both journalism and mental health – he serves on the board of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma – his first piece of advice was to scale back her initial vision of a monthly hard copy publication and weekly online stories.

“I said, ‘Look, you’ll drive everyone and yourself into an early grave if you do that. Let’s aim for a website only – because that is where most of students’ eyeballs are anyway – and one edition (of the online magazine) per semester.’ And it has worked out reasonably well.”

Dvorkin continues to provide editorial guidance, but he has found the editorial team needs little direction, as the magazine meets the test of good journalism.  Just as importantly, he says, it stays true to its “for students, by students” aspiration.

“It has the enthusiasm of youth as opposed to the cynicism of older people, and that’s good,” says Dvorkin. “I didn’t want it to look as if it had that kind of professional distance that journalism is supposed to have. It has an immediacy that I think is really compelling.”

If it has an enduring impact, he says, it will be because the magazine promotes resilience, a quality that everyone needs in today’s ever-changing digital world to be successful, personally and professionally. 

“It’s sort of like a constant need to be nimble about everything. So if Minds Matter helps deepen that sense of resilience and the ability to handle rapid change and demands on us – professionally, academically and culturally – then it will have done a great job.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough