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.

On Oct. 15, negotiations between the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and the College Employer Council (CEC) fell apart. Key issues included the CEC’s reliance on part-time faculty, which the OPSEU claims face job insecurity and unequal pay compared to contracted teachers. The union also called for faculty to have greater input in course content.

Classes stopped for nearly half a million students at Ontario’s 24 colleges, as 12,000 faculty began pacing picket lines. Colleges resumed five weeks later on Nov. 21, after Premier Kathleen Wynne ordered back-to-work legislation. The 36-day strike is the longest college strike in provincial history. Many colleges extended semesters into January to account for lost time.

The strike has been over for 29 days. Three weeks after the strike ended25,700 students – about 10 per cent of all college students – had dropped out. On Dec. 15, the day classes would have ended without the strike, a grassroots organization, Ontario Students United, organized a walk-out demanding, among other things, an automatic $500 rebate for all students for missed class time.

Students are not ready to move on from the strike without making their voices heard. This should include discussions about the way mental health support was treated during the strike.

Mental health care booted for five long weeks

Among the 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.

A Good2Talk poster advertises the support system offered to students. (Photo from Good2Talk)

Several colleges offered heavily reduced, walk-in counselling services for students to potentially access (depending on the demand of the day). But for 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.

The homepage of the Good2Talk website. (Photo from Good2Talk)

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.

Good2Talk was not good enough for college students.

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.”

By Alexa Battler

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.