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Calling U of T out for another death at Bahen Centre

Contributors demand stronger response and more mental health resources

Calling U of T out for another death at Bahen Centre

Content warning: discussion of suicide.

On Sunday, March 17, a student died by suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. The death was followed by student protests that criticized the U of T administration for its inadequate response and lack of mental health resources. Below, three students provide brief responses to The Varsity’s news coverage of the death and the protests that followed.

A lifeless response from the administration

Following what the University of Toronto has placidly deemed the “incident,” which occurred in the Bahen Centre on Sunday, and its lukewarm acknowledgement of the peaceful protests that followed, the administration’s true colours are showing.

In follow-up tweets, U of T has offered nothing but empty platitudes, student services with fatally long wait times, and various unaffiliated hotlines. In short, it is directing students outward — to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Good2Talk, and the Distress Centre — and washing its own hands of any institutional accountability.

In remaining silent on the crisis of student suicide, U of T simultaneously silences students who suffer. Their continual inaction proves that U of T is more concerned with preserving its “boundless” reputation than addressing a crisis that continues to take lives. After three reported deaths on campus in less than a year, I ask the administration: how many more will it take?

Students have spoken out after watching their peers needlessly suffer, demanding change. Yet U of T changes nothing, instead redirecting students to external partners or to a severely under-resourced Health & Wellness Centre. These practices have proven ineffective; serving only to normalize the issue and incorporate suicide into our university experience, the administration suggests that this is something we should anticipate.

Suicide is totally preventable, and preventative measures are not drastic or expensive. Life-saving changes include increasing the abundance and availability of trained professionals on campus, removing caps on counselling sessions, and dissolving the mandatory-leave policy.

Ensuring the safety of its students should be U of T’s first priority. This begins with acknowledging the ongoing crisis and changing mental health policies to reflect reality.

The University of Toronto must understand that its prized reputation cannot exist if students are not around to maintain it.

Rose Gulati is a second-year English, Political Science, and Women and Gender Studies student at Trinity College.

Say the s-word

It is time for U of T to say the s-word: ‘suicide.’ In the official response to the recent death at Bahen Centre, that word was strikingly absent. Instead, it was euphemistically referred to as “the recent incident.”

We could debate the reasons why ‘suicide’ was absent — fear of liability, bad press, or contagion — but I would rather talk about why it needs to be present.

Suicide is not a dirty word. It is, however, the second-leading cause of death among Canadians aged 10–29. As students, we have been talking about its frequency on campus. But as long as the administration remains afraid to say ‘suicide,’ we are missing out on the many proven opportunities to prevent it.

We do not need to look far for evidence to support this fact. In Toronto, deaths decreased after a barrier was erected on the Bloor Viaduct. There are also plenty of researchers affiliated with the university who study suicide. I work with one of them.

At St. Michael’s Hospital, I am a peer facilitator and co-educator of suicide intervention groups and trainings. In these programs, we have seen how, when we acknowledge suicide, we decrease its association with secrecy and shame and open up opportunities to increase awareness and skills pertaining to coping with emotions and distress, problem-solving, and naming and identifying feelings and needs. Safety planning, for example, is an evidence-based intervention and relatively simple to implement. It helps people recognize warning signs, coping strategies, and support systems.

I would like to see U of T offer safety planning workshops and develop a suicide prevention strategy so that we do not only talk about suicide after the fact. If we can’t name the problem, then we can’t talk about solutions. There are strategies and supports that help; suicide should not have to be the end of anyone’s story.

Gina Nicoll is a third-year Psychology student at Woodsworth College.

We need fundamental change

What is most shocking about the recent deaths on the U of T campus is how few people knew that they had actually occurred. Talking to people at the protests, it became obvious that this was no accident. The culture of academic competition that U of T creates also extends to the way in which the university treats such tragedies. The fact that we had to congregate simply to find out if someone we knew had died by suicide is ridiculous.

I believe that the protests on Monday emphasized, more than anything, how many of us have been made to feel lost and alone because of the environment that U of T fosters. Of course, I don’t doubt that the administration mean well on some level. But the fact that the ‘academic rigour’ on which U of T prides itself has created a situation where we are made to put our own health at risk for the illusion of success can’t be ignored.

The protests, I believe, provided a necessary shock to U of T’s system. Of course, the aim is to work with the administration, not counter to it. But it first needs to acknowledge that this isn’t a funding issue — for all the sanctioned notices and abstracted notions of mental wellness, we need fundamental change from the administration. We need a detoxification that requires much more trust in the student body than the university currently vests.

As I put in my section of the speech that resulted from a collaborative effort between protesters and that was read to the Business Board on Monday, we need change on three fundamental levels. Firstly, we need an acknowledgement; we don’t need to publicize their names or situations but to deny the plight of these victims is to deny their existence. Secondly, we need a more accessible variety of mental health care, one that contains at least steps toward services like 24-hour counselling and guidelines for unaccommodating and harsh professors. Thirdly, and most importantly, we need a large-scale reframing of the way that U of T treats its students.

As we showed on Monday, we won’t stand to be pitted against each other anymore.    

Arjun Kaul is a fifth-year Neuroscience, Cell & Molecular Biology, and English student at St. Michael’s College.

Disclosure: Kaul co-organized Monday’s protests.

If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Editor’s Note (March 20, 10:30 PM): This article has been updated to clarify that the individual who died by suicide was a student.

Federal government lowers student loan interest, establishes free grace period

Additional job opportunities, mental health leave support among other changes in 2019 federal budget

Federal government lowers student loan interest, establishes free grace period

The federal government is set to lower student loan interest rates and make the six-month grace period following graduation interest-free, according to its 2019 budget released March 19. The budget also provides financial support for students who are on parental leave, increases job placement availabilities for students, and provides additional funds to attract more foreign students to Canada.

Student loans

The federal government has reduced the floating student loan interest rate to the prime rate, from its current 2.5 per cent over prime. The fixed interest rate will be reduced to prime plus two per cent from the current prime plus five per cent. Most student loan recipients use the floating interest rate, which fluctuates, as opposed to the fixed interest rate, which remains constant for the duration of the loan. The prime rate refers to the annual interest rate that major financial institutions set.

These cuts are expected to cost the federal government $1.7 billion over the next five years. The budget predicts that the average student will consequently save approximately $2,000 over the period of their loan.

Currently, during the grace period, Ontario students who use the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) are not charged the one per cent over prime interest rates for the provincial portion of their loans, but the federal portion of loans begin accumulating interest immediately following graduation.

The Ontario Progressive Conservatives’ OSAP reconfigurations earlier this year eliminated the interest-free grace period for the provincial portion of student loans. This means that the statuses of the federal and provincial portions of OSAP loans have effectively swapped. Perhaps ironically, one of the stated reasons the Ontario government made changes to OSAP was to “align Ontario’s repayment terms with that of the federal government… to reduce complexity for students.”

The federal government is also set to implement interest- and payment-free leave for students using OSAP who are on temporary leave from university due to medical or parental reasons, including mental health leave. These can be used in six-month periods for up to 18 months total.

Additionally, the budget proposes increases in compensation to provinces and territories by $20 million over five years. This compensation will be used to supplement provincial student aid systems, like OSAP.

The federal government is also set to invest $15 million to support students with loans who have disabilities or are in “vulnerable financial or life situations.”

Other changes

Sweeping changes are in store for job- and volunteer-seekers. Initiatives to create 15,000 service placements, connect 90,000 young people with jobs, add 84,000 new work placements by 2023–2024, and provide five years of support to 1,000 entrepreneurs will cost the federal government a total of $1.2 billion.  

The federal government has also proposed an additional investment of $37.4 million over five years to expand parental leave coverage for postsecondary students and postdoctoral fellows. It also expands coverage from six months to 12. The budget notes that these expansions “will further improve equity and inclusion in research.”

Over five years, $147.9 million of the budget will also be used to develop a new International Education Strategy. Part of these funds will go toward developing “an outbound student mobility program” for students who pursue studies or work abroad, while the other part will “ensure that top-tier foreign students continue to choose Canada as their education destination of choice.”

University of Toronto President Meric Gertler praised the announced expansion of master’s and doctoral scholarship awards and mobility programs. “These investments in experiential learning are investments in Canada’s future,” he said.

“The investments are good news because they will drive economic growth by giving Canadians the skills they need to succeed. They will enhance the success of U of T graduates and others across the country who are entering the labour force.”