Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide
Five months ago, approximately 100 students stood outside Simcoe Hall, the seat of the university’s power, to protest what they perceived to be the administration’s inaction in the face of a growing mental health crisis on campus. Only one day earlier, U of T confirmed that a student died in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, the site of another suicide the previous summer.
Although protestors gathered in silence, their message to administration officials was clear: despite having at least three known suicides in campus buildings in the past year, U of T has failed to take concrete action on the mental health crisis on campus.
An aspect of the students’ frustration with the administration is the highly controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy, which allows U of T to unilaterally place students on leave if their mental health either poses a dangerous physical risk to themselves or others, or if it negatively impacts their studies. It’s a hallmark of the university’s mental health framework.
Despite heavy public opposition, Governing Council — the university’s highest decision-making body — passed the policy almost unanimously in June 2018, with only three out of over 40 governors voting against.
According to Sandy Welsh, U of T’s Vice-Provost, Students, the policy has been used eight times in the past year. Six of those cases “involved urgent situations such as death threats with plans including acquiring a weapon, physical attacks and persistent and concerning communications.”
While the other two cases also involved threats, “other systems and supports were in place such that the urgent situations clause did not need to be invoked,” Welsh wrote in an email to The Varsity in late July.
Welsh also noted that a medical professional was involved in all eight cases due to serious mental health issues among the students. When the policy debuted, many within the community took issue with the fact that nowhere in the policy were medical professionals required to be involved.
As it currently stands, the policy notes that medical professionals “may” be involved but does not explicitly make it a requirement.
According to Welsh, two of the eight students placed on leave returned to their studies within six weeks, with accommodations made. The university is working with three others so they can return in the fall. One student is still away, and the remaining two cases are “relatively recent,” she noted.
Welsh also wrote to The Varsity that feedback from the families and students involved in the policy has been positive, citing one family who was pleased with its application. “The family had thought that due to the student’s behaviour, their student would have been expelled,” she said.
Upon its introduction to the public sphere in the fall of 2017, the policy drew condemnation from student groups who criticized what they saw as a lack of consultation with students.
Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, noted that the initial draft of the policy raised several human rights concerns and fell “short of meeting the duty to accommodate.”
The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), under then-president Mathias Memmel, initially backed the policy, noting that they were “impressed” by it. However, the UTSU later withdrew its support due to concerns over the apparent lack of consultations.
Speaking to Governing Council on June 25, a year after the policy was approved, U of T’s Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr noted that due to the generally good feedback on the policy, senior administration has no plans to modify the document.
Regehr is scheduled to conduct a formal review of the policy in the 2020–2021 academic year.
However, student leaders continue to criticize the policy. Lucinda Qu and Kristen Zimmer, both prominent student activists, strongly rebuked the university’s existing mental health structures at a March Business Board meeting, the first governance meeting sinceafter the Bahen suicide.
Qu, one of the few students in the room, said that “the university is ignoring the needs of students in a blatant attempt to take the onus off of its administration for our mental health, safety, and well-being.”
“We see this policy, we see it in print, we see it in writing, and we are afraid. The consequences of this fear, the consequences of being silenced is life-threatening,” Zimmer said at the same meeting.
Joshua Bowman, President of the UTSU and the organization’s third chief executive since the policy was first introduced, wrote to The Varsity, expressing that the document gives the administration “too much discretionary power” to place students on leave.
Bowman also noted that the policy “is a reflection of the administration’s desire to remedy the mental health crisis from their perspective of the situation,” and that it was not “born out of consultation with students.”
“The reality is that we are experiencing a mental health crisis on campus,” he wrote.
Despite repeated calls from the student body to stop using the policy, even amid the formation of a dedicated mental health task force last spring, U of T is remaining steadfast in keeping it.
“What we can do and will continue to do is work with our community partners to provide every opportunity for our students to seek the kinds of service and supports they require,” Welsh wrote.