Content warning: explicit discussion of depression, attempted suicide, trauma, and denial of mental illness
Cassie*, a Woodsworth College student, found herself struggling in her second year. “I had a really, really tough time, so the counsellor…wanted me to tell my don in case anything terrible happened,” she recalls.
Cassie has bipolar disorder, a diagnosis she received in high school. When she came to university, she signed up for online counselling, which was a new initiative at the time. That year, Cassie’s counsellor called her don, and Cassie also went to speak to her. Although her conversation with the don went well and Cassie felt supported, her don told her that she was required to tell the dean of residence.
“I was kind of shocked — there was no reason for her to do that, because I felt she was there for me as a friend, there for me as extra support,” Cassie says.
The next day, the dean of residence contacted Cassie and they set up a meeting, in which the dean drew up a contract for Cassie to sign. According to Cassie, the contract stated that if she tried to commit suicide, or if she harmed herself in front of others, she would be asked to leave the residence.
When Sam* was in second year, their depression and anxiety hospitalized them.
Upon returning to residence at Trinity College, the dean of students held a series of one-on-one meetings with Sam. When Sam’s condition did not improve, he gave them two choices: either leave residence and enter inpatient treatment, or call their mother and tell her that they ended up in hospital. “This… inpatient treatment centre sounded god-awful, and I knew I wasn’t that bad,” Sam recalls. Sam opted to phone their mother, a conversation for which the dean had to be present as well.
Sam’s mother was not supportive. “My mother doesn’t believe in mental health issues, let alone the idea of someone who is suicidal. So, that conversation ended up causing a major, major rift in my relationship with my mother that was completely unnecessary.”
Sam believes that the college was more concerned with liability issues than their recovery. “Ultimately, he sacrificed my confidentiality for liability’s sake,” Sam says, adding that it was difficult to repair their relationship with their mother after that discussion.
Access to resources
Jonathan Steels, dean of students at Trinity College, says that the college approaches such situations on a case-by-case basis. “When a student in a high level of distress is identified, Trinity College staff work closely with staff across the university to work directly with the student to determine needs and arrange appropriate supports. Through this collaborative process we work together to ensure the best supports and safety for the student and the community,” he wrote in an email to the Varsity.
Liza Nassim, dean of Woodsworth College, did not respond to a request for comment.
“The University takes the safety and well-being of our students, staff and faculty very seriously,” says Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T, adding, “Our goal is to ensure at-risk students receive the right support and treatment.”
“In cases where a student attempts suicide, we work quickly to provide the student with the support they need. That may include access to health care professionals and academic accommodation should the student need to take a break from their studies while maintaining their academic record,” she says.
Sam maintains that staying on residence was the best course of action for them, due to the fact that resources like the residence dining-hall and the registrar’s office were close by. “[They’re] all connected to the residence buildings. So if all the resources are connected to the residence buildings, and you kick me off residence, that means I’m completely isolated from it,” Sam says.
Even though Cassie was not asked to leave residence, the contract she signed made her feel alienated from her friends, and she did not know who to speak to. Her parents live overseas and Cassie knew that they would not be receptive to hearing about her mental health issues. The ordeal also exacerbated Cassie’s mental illness. “It was a lot of stress. If I self harm, I can’t tell my roommates, even though they were my best friends, and people I wanted to go to when I’m having a panic attack. It was kind of harsh.”
Cassie found the separation from her roommates to be the most difficult. “Suddenly they were like, you can’t even talk to your roommates…they don’t want you to ‘infect’ your roommates or cause them to have anxiety as well. It’s just really tough because already you don’t want to bother people and as someone who’s always questioning things, and then suddenly they take away your friends, and you’re like oh fuck, you know?”
When Sam talked to the dean, they were told that they were a risk to themselves, and to other students at the college. “Ultimately, he basically said ‘it’s not just about you, it’s about this entire community, and if you ended up killing yourself, that would have caused an immense turmoil amongst the entire college.’”
Impact on others
“Creating safe campus communities means supporting those students who may be at risk, while also ensuring the well-being of all students — including those who may be negatively impacted when a fellow student experiences distress,” says Blackburn-Evans.
Susan* experienced the consequences of a friend’s suicide attempt when she walked into the aftermath of it in her first year at U of T. Susan struggled to be the support system that her friend needed. “My friend was hospitalized, and received intense psychiatric care. Her partner and I told people who noticed that she was missing from the residence that she had been hospitalized with a serious stomach illness. We ignored how sick we felt: we were determined to be okay, to be strong, to be supportive.”
“In the weeks and months following the event, risky behaviours became more tempting to me: drug use, alcohol abuse, anonymous and dangerous sex,” Susan recalls. She says that she would often get the urge to walk into traffic, lean too far over railings, drown herself, and that she had disturbing dreams. “[The] last thing I wanted to do was talk about it. In my dreams, I watched everyone I loved die, but they were dreams — in real life, there was nothing to talk about: my friend had lived.”
Susan dropped out of the art program she was in. “Creation slowly became impossible — working on anything made me feel anxious and sick.”
After nearly a year, Susan realized that she needed help. She is still dealing with the trauma of her friend’s suicide attempt. “I remember everything about that night. I relive it randomly: most often in movie theatres, though also alone in my room, in the middle of the day, when seemingly nothing is wrong.”
“We think of suicide as a solitary act. It is not. Somebody will always find the body.”
Policy and process
The lack of formal policy in place for at risk students was a problem for Cassie, who received no explanation about the procedure and what her rights were at the time. She says that not even her counsellor knew what the process was. “[My counsellor] was really shocked at how they dealt with it and how they reacted against someone who was just wanting support instead of being treated as a time-bomb,” she says.
Even though Cassie had never been hospitalized throughout her university career and was deemed to be a lower risk case, she still felt like she had to sign the contract, which she did. “I signed it without really knowing what I signed,” she explains.
“Did I need to sign those papers? I still don’t know to this day,” she says. “Am I forced to sign these papers, or can I say ‘no, I don’t want to sign these papers,’ or [is there any way] I can protect myself when these papers are put in front of me?”
Sam believes that having a formal policy would help the university with its liability concerns, although they do not think that U of T would implement such a policy. “If they had a formal policy, that would mean they’d have to keep the amount of people struggling with mental health on record. Do you think the university wants to have people know how many people are suffering from mental health because of the school environment? They would never want to release that.”
“Of course it’s in the best interests of the students to have a formal standardized policy, but at the end of the day they would never do it, because they’re worried about their own reputation, and they’re worried about their reputation to their own detriment, and to the detriment of their students.”
Blackburn-Evans states that U of T’s focus and the focus of the colleges is on resources, rather than policies. Blackburn-Evans names Health and Wellness centres on all three campuses, as well as Counseline, a counselling service run through U of T’s Faculty of Social Work, and Good2Talk, a helpline for Ontario post-secondary students, as available resources.
A course of action
“The appropriate course of action would have been to continue following up with me… honestly just believing me when I say that I was stable, and saying that yeah I was still struggling but believing, ultimately the person that knows you best is yourself. And when you’re not believing this person that’s telling you they would be better off on residence, then clearly you’re not following the best course of action,” says Sam.
“At the colleges, residence dons and many others have specialized training in dealing with those who are at risk. The focus is always on accommodation, supportive resources, and so on,” says Blackburn-Evans.
Blackburn-Evans also says that the university can take action via Residence Codes, the Code of Student Conduct, or by other means to comply with its legal duties to maintain a safe environment. In extreme cases rights exist under the Mental Health Act to ensure that a person who is at risk is placed where there can be immediate access to medical resources.
Susan emphasizes that she does not believe people with severe mental health problems should be abandoned, and that the trained support available is not enough to justify keeping an at-risk student in residence. “The high-stress atmosphere of a university is difficult enough without mental illness, and our already over-taxed system cannot make the changes necessary to provide the more frequent one-on-one support needed by somebody actively battling suicidal ideation without a significant overhaul,” she says.
“If a university does not ask a suicidal student to leave, they are asking that student’s peers to become a support system, or — in the worst cases — the first responders. They are exposing students to a very serious form of trauma,” she says.
“I don’t know what the solution is,” says Cassie. “I just wish that I knew… I never knew that other people went through this [sort of thing], I didn’t know that this was a thing that happened at all the residences. So when I read that article it was super surprising that this happened to other people,” she says, referring to an article published by VICE that reported that a U of T student was told not to come back to residence after a suicide attempt.
“I wish that first years knew that they were going into residences and people just knew about it. So whatever happens, they know the procedures and they know how to deal with it once it comes,” says Cassie.
* Names changed at students’ requests