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Okay, U of T, let’s talk

But put your money where your mouth is — invest in mental health services
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Conversation and awareness about mental illness must be matched with more services and resources. NATHANIEL CHEN/THE VARSITY
Conversation and awareness about mental illness must be matched with more services and resources. NATHANIEL CHEN/THE VARSITY

Content warning: discussion of suicide.

Paralleling the annual “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign, a “Let’s Talk UTM” event will take place on January 30. There are wall posters across UTM encouraging students, staff, and faculty to open up about their struggles with mental health. This kind of event aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

U of T’s promotion of “Bell Let’s Talk” is nothing new, and the focus on awareness and conversation-based initiatives, as with the recent Mindfest event, appears to be favoured. There is no question that enabling students to speak without shame and educating people on the seriousness of mental illness are important.

However, these alone are not sufficient. When it comes to mental health, U of T can’t just talk the talk. It must walk the walk, by providing adequate services, resources, and allyship to students who are struggling. Otherwise, these events amount to token gestures designed to market the university as an institution that values mental health, without actually making the necessary material investment.

Mental illness is a growing problem on campuses, and services intended to deal with it are operating over capacity. Consider the dramatic increase in student registration at Accessibility Services in recent years for mental health reasons. Perhaps this is an indication that mental health initiatives, designed to reduce the stigma, are working. Students, rightly, are told that they aren’t alone and that it is okay to seek help.

But when they do seek help, students aren’t met with the kind of support they are promised. Instead, they face long wait times for appointments, and caps on the number of counselling sessions they are allowed to receive from university health care providers.

Time and resources allocated to operating mental health campaigns should be matched with hiring more counsellors and mental health nurses. Although the limit on appointments at Health & Wellness per year has not been verifiable, the personal experiences of Varsity masthead and contributors suggest that UTM has a cap of five, UTSC has a cap of eight, and UTSG has a cap of 10.

One of the most common forms of therapy is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), CBT is a common form of psychotherapy that takes a thought-based approach. This means that individuals are taught to develop skills and strategies to improve their mental health.

CAMH indicates that CBT can be beneficial if done in six to 20 sessions. But given U of T’s caps, students who build the strength and courage to attend counselling will likely not benefit from CBT. The same applies to other forms of counselling. The sessions won’t be effective if students are restricted to a certain number of visits. Students who reach their cap are advised to seek counselling outside the university.

Although students are automatically enrolled in a health insurance plan, which would pay for a portion of these appointments, the amount provided through insurance is not always enough to cover the entire cost. This means that counselling services remain out of reach for some students, especially those who are financially insecure. Additionally, there is a cap on the amount of money students may receive through insurance in a single policy year — leaving students alone, once again, when their policy runs out.

The very willingness of students to access mental health services has likely also been compromised since the approval of the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP) last summer.

According to the university, the UMLAP is a positive step toward better mental health on campus. Under the UMLAP, students experiencing mental health issues that the university believes interfere with their studies, or pose a threat to themselves or others, can be asked to leave the university until they are able to demonstrate that they are mentally well enough to continue their schooling.

The Varsity’s editorial board has expressed concern about the UMLAP in the past. It takes away students’ autonomy, and its existence likely deters students from seeking help in fear of the policy’s consequences. Revealing too much could result in students being asked to leave the school.

This is the university’s answer, even though a student may simply prefer a middle ground of better accommodation while still progressing in their degree, pursuing extracurricular activities, and remaining in a social space and support network on campus — all of which can boost their mental health.

Ironically, then, the UMLAP does not address the problem. Rather, it re-stigmatizes mental illness and forces students to face their challenges alone. The application of this policy completely contradicts the messages of encouragement and support peddled through university-run mental health campaigns.

When somebody died by suicide last June at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, it was a grave reminder of the reality of students’ struggles with mental health. And when the university still chose to approve the UMLAP just days after this incident — and on top of significant student opposition — it revealed a severe lack of judgement and sensitivity toward campus affairs.

U of T would much rather pretend that there is no mental health crisis on campus, because it likely fears that such a revelation would compromise its reputation and deter student enrolment, ultimately affecting the university’s bottom line. It would much rather pathologize, isolate, and remove vulnerable students who challenge U of T’s sterling reputation.

But mental illness is not exogenous to the university. Surely, cultures of stigma toward mental illness and an emphasis on competitive academics, for which U of T needs to take responsibility, produce students with mental illness.

If the university were to adequately invest in services and policies that encourage openness and properly accommodate students, it could help students reach their potential and strengthen the academic reputation it prioritizes so much. It could even bolster U of T’s image as a benevolent institution that cares about its students, and thereby stimulate enrolment.

To this end, doing better for the mental health of students is also a matter of self-interest — even though it shouldn’t be — and is financially within reach if the university makes it a priority in their multibillion dollar budget.

If U of T is going to encourage students to open up about their struggles, the university should adequately respond and support them when they do. Students need access to mental health resources, and not in the form of toques or self-care bags. So, okay U of T, let’s talk — but put your money where your mouth is.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected]