Mental health helpline not good enough for college student support during strike

When the five-week faculty strike left half a million students out of Ontario’s 24 colleges, it also left thousands without access to appropriate mental health care.

Among the 12,000 striking faculty were psychological counsellors. Longstanding relationships with counsellors, which take time, devotion and care to craft and nurture, were abruptly cut. No faculty were allowed any contact with students for 36 days.

Several colleges, including Centennial College, offered heavily reduced, walk-in counselling services for students to potentially access (depending on the demand of the day). But for Centennial College, and several others, its primary fallback was Good2Talk, Ontario’s free, post-secondary mental health helpline.

Good2Talk was not good enough for college students.

Good2Talk was created in 2013 as Ontario, and its students, continued to buckle under the demand for mental health services (as it still does). The free, 24-hour helpline attempted to toss a bandage over the provincial shortage of preferable, regular counseling services, often needed by those with chronic mental illness.

Good2Talk is a well-intentioned initiative. But the colleges did not make an informed decision when selecting this specific helpline as its backup.

Good2Talk offers services only in English and French, which is understandable for a bilingual country and questionable for a highly multicultural province. For the tens of thousands of international college students – the same students that also had to worry about finances and immigration status – they were stranded in what was an undoubtedly difficult-to-articulate tapestry of emotions.

The Book of Life, a crowdfunded literary organization, has identified the 30 most untranslatable words from across the world. Of these, 11 are related to sadness or anxiety. For international students in new or early-learning stages of English or French, Good2Talk was not wholly accessible.

Good2Talk also does not offer text-based chat services. Not only does this make Good2Talk inaccessible for the hearing-impaired or deaf, it isolates students with phone anxiety, a specific and common subsection of social anxiety in which spoken phone calls spark intense anxious reactions.

Without text-based chat services, Good2Talk is available only through cellular phone plans. It may seem unreasonable that, in 2017, people could not have a working cell phone. But with new, free and constantly expanding opportunities for communication through the internet, it is no longer necessary to have a registered cellular device to stay connected. The assumption of blanket access or need for cellular connection actually reinforces the digital divide – the gap in services based on the availability of technology.

For international students, a cellular phone plan would likely not affordably cover calls to one’s home country. While students continued to have access to school computers, and public computers in libraries, there are fewer than 55,000 pay phones left in all of Canada. Phones are relatively accessible in other public places, but they often do not lend the privacy needed for someone to seek urgent mental health care in the way a text-based chat does.

An accessible service needed to be available at a time when students were most vulnerable. And yet, the colleges relied on a service that was inaccessible to an even more vulnerable segment of its students. Students deserved a variety of services, helplines, text-based chats and other connective, accessible services. They deserved much more than merely “good.”