Queen’s must address the lack of mental health supports for graduate student workers

Burnout, anxiety, and chronic stress are commonplace

Rohit feels the university is sorely lacking when it comes to providing mental health supports for graduate TAs, RAs, and TFs.

Graduate teaching assistants (TAs), teaching fellows (TFs) and research assistants (RAs) at Queen’s perform work that is necessary for successful course delivery and research output in the university. We work as the fulcrum upon which course delivery is carried out, liaising between students and instructors, ensuring that the needs and expectations of either are well-communicated to the other.

Burnout, anxiety, and high levels of chronic stress are commonplace for us, but therapy expenses often become the straw that breaks the camel’s back. We have colleagues who are forced to choose between paying rent and accessing the mental health supports they need. The severity of this issue needs to be addressed honestly and transparently by Queen’s.

During grading windows, we find ourselves spending days glued to the screen, working against difficult deadlines, and reaching deep to make sure that students receive the feedback they deserve. None of this is easy.

Most of us are in debt, pay tuition, and depend on our TA, RA, or TF contracts for rent and food while we work towards completion of our own degrees.

We need preventative mental health solutions that transform the work culture and graduate funding packages at the University. These solutions also need to be responsive to and financially supportive of graduate student-workers who need mental health support right now.

This starts with the university recognizing graduate TA, RA, and TF mental health as occupationally tied to the nature of our work and taking fair responsibility for its redressal.

When my union on campus, PSAC 901, ran a bursary for members experiencing hardships last year, the financial burden resulting from accessing crucial mental health support was one of the most pervasive issues.

All our subsequent membership surveys have indicated the same.

In our most recent internal survey, many graduate student workers cited long hours of screen time, the stress of managing TA, RA, and TF duties alongside one’s own PhD or MA Research, requirements to mark many papers within a short deadline, and the expectation of round-the-clock availability as contributing burdens to the negative impact on their mental wellbeing.

So much of our work is based on emotional self-management: helping students navigate personal or academic crises in their lives and troubleshooting for faculties in their course delivery, all while working towards our own program requirements.

This occupational vulnerability is amplified for graduate student workers from equity-seeking groups. Experiences of racial microaggressions, accent discrimination, and an ableist and queerphobic workspace at Queen’s are unfortunate realities that render this a serious issue for TAs, RAs, and TFs from the margins.

Yet there’s a severe lack of racialized, queer, or disabled therapists at Queen’s.

This underfunding of equitable mental health support at Queen’s for graduate student workers means that our wellbeing currently rests on our ability to pay out of pocket to cope with issues that are often amplified or created occupationally.

A graduate student worker who needs to access therapy would be giving up a lion’s share of their monthly income in the process. To those of us from lower-income backgrounds or with families to support financially, this is an unimaginable burden that creates barriers to maintaining mental health, safety, and wellbeing.

My union is asking that Queen’s implement the National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (National Standard) as the minimum standard for psychological wellbeing at Queen’s.

To implement the Standard means committing to the development and sustainability of psychologically healthy and safe workplace environments—one that recognizes mental wellbeing as occupationally tied to our TA, RA, and TF lives.

The transformation of graduate funding packages, toxic work cultures and expectations, and workplace equity concerns are all central to the creation of a mentally healthy campus.

Yet while these steps are made, we also need immediate and barrier-free financial supports for therapy access.

These supports currently exist within the university sector in Ontario. For instance, Western University provides an annual amount of $51,000 to the TA Union specifically to help offset the mental health expenses of members. It’s important in the pandemic recovery period that Queen’s steps up and goes further.

The institutional discussions of Occupational Health and Safety at Queen’s have long ignored the psychosocial manifestations of workplaces hazards and harm. This has led to the graduate student worker experience being unhealthy and traumatic for far too many of us.

With graduate student worker mental health, Queen’s is sorely lacking. An approach toward occupational mental wellbeing that’s rooted in an equitable and anti-racist lens must be developed now.

TA, RA, and TF work needs to be recognized as unhealthily flexible, precarious, and psychologically extractive—and yet fundamentally crucial for the academic functioning and success of the university.

Queen’s needs to value our work and recognize how its nature often impacts us. As we ask for better mental health supports at the bargaining table, we call upon the Queen’s community to stand with us in support.

Rohit Revi is a PhD student in the Cultural Studies Graduate Program.

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