UTSC Computer Science Mental Health

I'm going to address the CS program at UTSC specifically, because I can speak most directly on what areas are lacking and which ones could be improved.

Note: Outside of CS, people might claim that mental health issues at UTSC are caused by problems like lacking a sense of community, similar to other “commuter” schools. I think these are valid concerns, but I won’t talk about them because they’re bigger problems and I’d rather write about something I think the CS department has the power to change.

Note: The POST system at UTSC causes hardship for a lot of people. I know there's a lot of debate on how it should be handled already but I don’t think it’s the only issue we face. I will say that there is a lack of openness (that is improving) on how POST works and what to expect as an incoming first year. Anyone who researches this program has to dig way too deep into the CMS website before finding details about POST compared to how much impact it has on first year students. POST requirements should be presented as a big red banner at the top of the CMS website where it can't be missed. This would make the website look pretty ugly, but this level of openness is a requirement to gain student trust and to attract the right people into the program.

When we think about mental health, there can be confusion between people who have clinical mental disorders vs. those who feel mental distress based on their circumstances. These two types of people have different needs and when we talk about "mental-health" I believe it's very important to make a separation between the two.

Within the CS program at UTSC, there are most likely people who are clinically depressed. The CS department, UTSC, and UofT in general is at no fault for people suffering from a chronic condition. I believe these people deserve support from the university to seek professional help and should be accommodated if necessary.

Within the CS program at UTSC there are people who experience symptoms of depression, such as feelings of sadness and loss of interest that interfere with daily life, for reasons that at least partially stem from the actions of the CS department. Offering these people mental health services to help cope with what they experience as a result of attending the university is wildly missing the mark. I think there is a much greater impact to be made by reflecting on the way individual courses are administered.

So what happens currently in our program that degrades mental health? Aside from first year requirements, I think the one factor that CS students at UTSC would bring up that degrades their mental health is the excessive difficulty of some courses. This is a valid concern and one reasonable conclusion to come to is that the program should be made easier. I personally think that how hard the courses are is not an issue and instead we lack a support system to help justify the difficulty.

I'll try and describe through example why having hard courses in the program is not the reason students suffer. In my opinion the best run course in the Computer Science program at UTSC is MATA37 with Kathleen Smith. MATA37 is a hard course; the year I took it our midterm average was barely over 50%. MATA37 is a stressful course; it is included in first-year POST requirements, where a student hopeful to be admitted into the program would like to achieve a final grade of 70% or higher. Yet if you were to ask the students (even those who didn't perform as well as they'd liked), it would be hard to find someone that would speak ill of Kathleen or the course itself. From the outside, A37 is the same as any other first year course and without looking deeper you could imagine the stress caused by such low marks contributes equally to the "mental health crisis" of CS students at UTSC.

After midterm marks were released, Kathleen made the class a proposition that I haven't seen made anywhere else. She stood in front of 500 students packed into IC130 and said "If you would like to schedule an appointment with me, you can bring your midterm and we'll sit down and talk about it to figure out where you went wrong". I scheduled one of these meetings. What I thought would only be a 15 minute conversation, turned into a 45 minute in-depth review of what I could do next time and how I could perform my best for the rest of the course. I know other people had a similar experience. This level of compassion for the students makes it enjoyable to go to class and makes it worthwhile to struggle through the challenges of first-year CS. As a student, you can trust Kathleen has your best interest at heart.

Kathleen's lectures aren't dry or uninteresting. She presents with a sense of enthusiasm, and isn't afraid to crack a joke. She is relatable. She provides a large amount of (challenging) practice material to students, meaning that you're almost guaranteed to receive what you put into the course. During the final exam, she made visits to each writing room and gave everyone a chocolate. If every course was conducted in such a way that it felt our successes and failures were taken seriously, I would find it hard to feel hopeless despite the difficulty of the program. So I'm left wondering if Kathleen Smith taught every course at UTSC would we still have a "mental health crisis"?

That being said, I can in no way expect professors to work 24/7 supporting their students. Maybe we need to hire more qualified people, capable of giving 1-on-1 support where it's needed. Maybe we can do a better job at connecting students to their upper-year peers so people can build their own support networks. Maybe we need to be more open in the way we communicate with each other. Talk amicably about test results, let us know what we can do better. Don't just show up to lecture to present a slideshow. Find a way to make class enjoyable enough that I want to be there. Gain the student's trust that their interests are in mind while decisions are being made.