Content warning: discussions of suicide.

Following a student death by suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology earlier this month, the Computer Science Student Union and the Department of Computer Science held a town hall on March 27 to address mental health issues within the department, as well as the competitive program of study (POSt) requirements that many in the computer science community believe to be a contributing factor to poor mental health among students. It was announced at the town hall that the department is planning to increase space in the program by 10 per cent for the coming school year, with a new system for admitting students into the program expected to be ready for the 2020–2021 academic year.

The Chair and the Associate Chair of the Undergraduate Studies section of the department — Ravin Balakrishnan and Michelle Craig — were on the panel to address concerns from the students.

Melanie Woodin, the incoming Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science; Deborah Robinson, Faculty Registrar and Director of Undergraduate Academic Services; and Caroline Rabbatt, Director of Critical Incidents, Safety and Health Awareness were also in attendance.

Changes to POSt

Balakrishnan announced that the department is planning to increase space in the program and move to a new admissions process. The new system, similar to the admission process for Rotman Commerce, would admit half of the program’s students directly from high school — requiring them to apply with a supplemental application and maintain certain grades in required courses — with the other half made up of out-of-stream students.

Another change to the POSt system for the coming academic year, Craig explained, is that in-stream and out-of-stream students will not be differentiated for program admissions.

“Students are in the same courses, taking the same midterms, the same final exams, and we’ll use the grades in those courses without regard for the student stream,” Craig said. “I think that that’s fair to all students.”

In response to a question about the ratio of direct-from-high school students and non-stream students, Craig said that the decision was made in order to avoid advantaging students who have advanced computer science programs available during their secondary education. She added that while the plan is still required to go through the faculty’s governance process, the whole panel is hopeful that the new system will pass.

When asked about how the department could ensure mental health of students in a competitive program like computer science, Balakrishnan said that the department will be expanding staff and hopes that the new POSt system will also benefit students.

However, Balakrishnan also said that he could not pretend that computer science would be a less competitive or difficult program but does want to make the program “more palatable” for students.

Discussion also came up about the possibility of separating the department from the faculty, to which Balakrishnan responded by saying that “all options are on the table.”

Woodin also commented on the issue, saying that the faculty acknowledges that computer science is a rapidly changing field of study but did encourage computer science students who do not make POSt to pursue a minor.

Responding to another question about how to create a more welcoming environment in the program, Balakrishnan said that in the short term, open spaces that come out of Bahen Centre renovations could be used by computer science students, and in the long term, he proposed having a building dedicated to computer science.

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.