On June 27, despite a review of the policy’s merits, a letter from the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, and active opposition from every major student group on campus, the University of Toronto’s Governing Council approved a new university-mandated leave of absence policy, effective immediately.
The policy resulted from the 2014–2015 Report of the University Ombudsperson, which encouraged the university to improve its mental health supports broadly. The report’s recommendations included commitments to increasing awareness of support programs, expanding teaching resources, and extending and improving the effectiveness of services.
U of T still has a lot of work to do to meet these commitments and create a culture on campus that values mental health, but its first step was to create a policy, which it claims gives students in crisis the ability to put their mental health first. The policy allows the administration to place a student on academic suspension if they pose a serious risk of harm to themselves or others, or if they are “unable to engage in the essential activities required to pursue an education.”
The policy first drew attention last October and is seen by many students as an infringement upon students’ right to autonomy. Mental health advocates have argued that this policy will push students into social isolation and disrupt their daily life, making depression worse and increasing the risk of suicide.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, one in five Canadians struggle with mental health each year, a number that is magnified among postsecondary students. With so many students affected, there is no doubt that this policy calls into question the university’s commitment to protecting mental health.
Since the policy is here to stay, it is imperative that students understand the policy so that they are able to protect their mental health and defend their rights, should they be affected by it.
There has been a lot of misinformation about this policy. Perhaps the most detrimental aspect of this policy is that many students will now neglect to access university services for fear of being placed on a leave of absence.
Let’s be very clear: students are seriously impacted by a policy which could force them to leave residence, lose access to gym facilities and the Health & Wellness Centre, and become isolated from their close friends whom they need for their recovery. All of these are real costs and should raise serious questions about how the university values mental health.
But the extremely limited scope of this policy means that most students who are seeking help are completely unaffected. We encourage all students to continue to see their registrar, get help at the Health & Wellness Centre, and tell Accessibility Services about how their mental health is affecting their ability to learn.
Students can only be forced to take a leave in very limited and extreme circumstances. The policy is designed to be applied primarily when a student’s behaviour poses “a risk of imminent or serious physical or psychological harm” to themselves or others. Circumstances under which this policy would be invoked would almost certainly cause unnecessary distress for students who are already extremely vulnerable. Such an alarming proposition provides sufficient reason to fight this policy on behalf of our fellow students whose lives are affected so severely.
While these cases certainly deserve our attention, we must also recognize how rare they are in the framework of a large student body. Students in such rare circumstances would also meet the threshold to be hospitalized for their mental illness. Evidently, the vast majority of students who struggle with mental health do not meet that bar.
While students can technically be removed if they are unable to “engage in the essential activities” of their program, the university is first required to provide a host of accommodations ranging from extensions to exam deferrals, involving Accessibility Services, and allowing students to credit/no credit or defer a course. Collectively, we must work to hold the administration accountable for providing these services and supports for affected students.
Many students have also expressed concerns about the involvement of medical professionals in this process. Under the policy, students can still choose to share their assessments at any time. When an expert medical opinion disputes the Vice-Provost’s evaluation of the student’s state of mind, it is likely to be a key determinant in whether the university decides to invoke this policy or not.
For this reason, students should understand that choosing to share personal information could be very helpful to their case. However, if students choose to keep their mental health treatment private, they have the right to do so.
The university can be an incredibly toxic environment for one’s well-being, and we must acknowledge the specific conditions of students who are more likely to be affected by the policy.
Additionally, some students may not be comfortable with disclosing their mental health to doctors or therapists and may instead choose to discuss their mental health with religious leaders, professors, registrars, or close advisors. Requiring the involvement of a medical professional would force the university to value that one opinion over those of other individuals who may be more familiar with a particular student’s case.
The university has taken steps to recognize the specific differences between cases. Not every leave of absence is created equal. Students have the right to negotiate terms and conditions that are consistent with their individual circumstances. This part of the process allows students to try and minimize the disruption that a leave would create for their lives.
Students should use this opportunity to protect what they value: whether that is access to a U of T Health & Wellness counsellor, financial reimbursements for the cost of tuition, temporary housing if removed from residence, access to gyms, or credit for a course that is almost complete.
Students struggling with mental health are also eligible for legal aid, including assistance with immigration in the case of international students. This is a right we must continue fighting to uphold.
The bottom line is that the policy is so limited in scope that it would have applied to roughly five cases last year, in a university of more than 90,000 students, according to the Ombudsperson. Schools including Cornell University, the University of Chicago, New York University, Washington University in St. Louis, Columbia University, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have all implemented some version of an involuntary leave policy.
This does not by any means justify such a policy, but it allows us to analyze the way involuntary leave is exercised. At U of T, students could already have been forced away from campus by being suspended under the Code of Student Conduct when their mental health poses a danger to themselves or other community members. This policy formalizes this procedure and creates a way to differentiate between disciplinary suspensions and health-related leaves of absence.
This policy reminds us of the frequent bioethical dispute about a person’s autonomy when their safety or the safety of others is threatened. Our first priority must always be to combat these issues before they pose more serious concerns, which means providing more effective resources, community supports, and aid to students in need. The university can be an incredibly toxic environment for one’s well-being, and we must acknowledge the specific conditions of students who are more likely to be affected by the policy.
Of course, personal safety is subjective and should include personal assessments, but we must also ensure that our vulnerable students are protected in a way that truly supports them. While this policy may be imperfect, by prioritizing a student’s recovery, it attempts to value personal well-being, at the expense of student autonomy. Whether this is good or bad will always be a point of contention.
When this policy goes up for reconsideration in three years, both affected and unaffected students will once again have the opportunity to voice their opposition. In the meantime, we have a responsibility to ensure that this policy is implemented responsibly and in very few extreme cases, while making it as easy as possible for students to return to campus. We hope that students in this situation can use this piece to be better empowered to exercise their rights.
Since Governing Council chose to pass this policy, we as students will need to monitor developments carefully to defend our interests. All we can do now is wait and see, and be ready to challenge the university administration whenever necessary.
Zeus Eden is a second-year student studying Economics and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies at Trinity College. He is the Assistant Vice-President University Governance of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU).
Joshua Grondin graduated as an Economics and International Relations student at University College in June. He is the Vice-President University Affairs of the UTSU.