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Two research teams awarded grants toward student mental health studies 

July 8/2024

Faculty members Emily Seto and Daniel Grace receive 2023-24 Inlight Research Development Grants for studies focusing on student mental health. 

By Elaine Smith

Left Portrait is of Prof. Emily Seto smiling at the camera in front of a brick wall. Right portrait is of Prof. Daniel Grace smiling at the camera in front of a white background.

Prof. Emily Seto (left) and Prof. Daniel Grace (right) are two of the five university recipients who received 2023-2024 Inlight Research Development Grants. The grants support studies to advance post-secondary student mental health and wellness.

Professors Emily Seto and Daniel Grace are among five University of Toronto (U of T) researchers who have been awarded 2023-24 Inlight Research Development Grants to advance knowledge and develop solutions to complex issues related to student mental health.

The grant program grew out of U of T’s response to the 2020 final report U of T’s Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health that resulted in a partnership with the Centre for Addictions & Mental Health (CAMH) to collaboratively determine new research directions that may require integrated, interdisciplinary approaches.

Supporting international students living on campus

Associate Prof. Seto’s research project titled Residence-Based Mental Health Literacy Education for International Students targets the needs of international students living in residence and will explore ways to support and promote their mental health as they adjust to a new country and the university environment. Seto is a Professional Engineer of Ontario and the incoming Program Director of the Health Systems Research Program at the Institute of Health, Policy, Management and Evaluation (IHPME).

Portrait of lead researcher, PhD student Amika Shah, smiling in front of a blurred background of a building.

Amika Shah, a PhD student supervised by Seto, is leading the research project on international students living in residence.

Amika Shah, a PhD student supervised by Seto, is leading the research. “This is a drastic transition for international students, beyond just the traditional life stage transition,” says Shah. “We want to focus on providing support to them where they are, since there is a strong residence life system with staff who support students 24/7. There’s an opportunity to provide specific resources and materials tailored to the students’ needs.”

Seto notes that the research is very timely, given the impact that the pandemic has had on mental health and the impact of world events on students, who don’t have the same support networks as their domestic counterparts.

Their work will involve interviewing students, including them in the co-design of programs and materials and creating prototypes to share with residence staff for feedback. Their hope is that the resulting materials and programs can be included in residence life staff training to support international students better.

“We are thrilled and grateful to have received this award so that we can develop novel ways to support the well-being of international students, particularly at this time when there are so many pressing factors that can impact their mental health,” says Seto. “I’m also excited that this award will support Amika to expand her impactful research on tailored tools to improve well-being and mental health literacy.”

Improving mental health care services for 2SLGBTQ+ students

Sarah Smith, PhD, smiles for a portrait in front of a blurred background of a building.

Sarah Smith, PhD, is the lead research associate focusing on the health needs of 2SLGBTQ+ students.

Associate Prof. Grace’s research project is titled Strengthening Services to Support the Mental Health Needs of Diverse 2SLGBTQ+ Students Across the University of Toronto: Planning and Partnership Development. The research will be led by Sarah Smith, PhD, lead research associate on Grace’s team. It continues a project that is exploring the experiences that 2SLGBTQ+ students have in accessing healthcare.

Previously, Smith and the team interviewed 30 2SLGBTQ+ students about their interactions with the health care system, along with a few U of T student life and equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) professionals. Now, thanks to the grant, they plan to engage with university mental health care professionals to determine “how they understand what 2SLGBTQ+ students need and how comfortable they feel supporting these students on issues such as gender and sexuality,” Smith says. “Are there things they need to know and things that get missed in translation?”

Smith hopes to bridge the gap between students and providers and offer guidance that will make sure the system meets their needs.

“We realize things won’t change overnight, but it’s important to bring our data, observations and recommendations to the university,” Smith says. “Currently, a lot of 2SLGBTQ+ students cannot find the care they need in the university health care system and opt to pay for services elsewhere.

“I am so looking forward to connecting with other folks at the University of Toronto whose passions also lie in student mental health. I know there are a lot of really exciting and productive discussions to be had.”

Grace, the 2SLGBTQ+ Health Lead at DLSPH and director of DLSPH’s Centre for Sexual and Gender Minority Health Research, is eager to have his team pursue this project.

“We are committed to leading research and knowledge mobilization efforts to improve the experiences of diverse 2SLGBTQ+ students across the University, including available mental health services,” he says. “It is necessary that we listen to the needs of 2SLGBTQ+ students, and work collectively across the university to remove structural barriers to accessing services”.

“Our research to date has highlighted the importance of hiring more 2SLGBTQ+ counsellors and making counsellors who specialize in 2SLGBTQ+ issues more easily identifiable. Students want increased access to consistent, ongoing counselling as well as increased access to trauma-informed therapy. We must also do a better job at ensuring that students know what mental health services are available at the university.”