Students suffering from severe anxiety attacks or suicidal feelings are a reality of life at any school, and the University of Toronto is no different.
From nine to five, Monday to Friday, the Student Crisis Response hotline is available to assist U of T faculty and staff who are supervising students undergoing just such a crisis. But life at U of T continues far beyond regular business hours, and there has recently been criticism over what protocols staff should follow when most university offices are closed.
Alex*, an invigilator with Test and Exam Services, oversees students with documented disabilities, including students who are at greater risk of extremely severe anxiety attacks or even becoming suicidal. “My job is to ensure that they have support to make it through their exams,” Alex says. “During the exam period we face [these situations] very regularly, at least a couple times a week, if not more frequently.”
Alex says invigilators have been instructed to contact campus police, and only campus police, if a student is undergoing a crisis outside of business hours.
This protocol, which Alex says has been in place for about two years, has apparently been a point of disagreement between invigilators who are critical of the policy and the management that implemented it.
Alex expresses appreciation for the job campus police do, but believes they lack the training to respond in a way that de-escalates the situation, and also that calling the police can have a stigmatizing effect on the students. “If you are having a mental health crisis, seeing somebody come in with a uniform on… can exacerbate it for some people,” Alex says.
That criticism is echoed by Pat*, a fellow exam invigilator who supervises students with mental health disabilities. “Part of our issue… and we bring this up every year, is the idea of having to call campus police for a student in crisis is tantamount to calling the police on someone having a mental breakdown,” Pat says.
Both Pat and Alex related similar stories regarding how campus police responded to students undergoing mental health crises. Officers would arrive and offer the student the choice of either leaving the exam or being taken to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
“Only in one instance… have I had a positive experience in terms of how they addressed and dealt with the student,” says Pat. “Generally, it’s a lot more coaching and they’re more confrontational.”
Clifford Posel, an assistant professor with U of T’s department of psychiatry, says that when students are undergoing severe anxiety attacks or suicidal episodes, it is important that the response be therapeutic.
“There are police officers that do have such training,” says Posel, referring to the specially trained officers that serve in the psychiatric mobile crisis intervention teams of 911 emergency services. “These police officers have been specifically trained to work with the mentally ill, so they know how to respond in a therapeutic manner with this population.”
Posel states that he does not know if U of T campus police have this training, but that “if they don’t, then that’s not the best people to call.”
“Regular training is provided to faculty, teaching staff, administrative staff (including campus police) on managing and responding to critical incidents or crisis on campus,” says Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T director of media relations.
However, Blackburn-Evans did not provide specifics on the kind of training campus police are given in order to deal with mental health crises.
“Situations requiring immediate referral or action are taken very seriously,” says Blackburn-Evans. “In such cases, those responding to the incident are to call 911 and campus police… If the emergency occurs after hours campus police are available to assist.”
She also says that U of T staff supervising students in crisis after hours may seek help from services other than campus police. This appears to contradict the protocol that exam invigilators claim they have been instructed to follow.
“Services such as Good2Talk … a free, completely confidential and anonymous service that offers students professional counselling, mental health information and connections to local resources — are available after hours,” Blackburn-Evans says. “It is also appropriate for faculty and staff to utilize these services as an addition to internal services.”
“There should be other opportunities in place, but that does not exist for us,” Pat says.
*Name changed at person’s request.