Content warning: discussions of suicide.
When news broke on Friday that yet another person had died in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology in an apparent suicide, the U of T community once again entered a cycle that has become horrifyingly familiar since it first appeared in mid-2018: grief, anger, and a question that is all the more tragic because of its frequency — ‘again?’
The mental health crisis at U of T had been apparent long before the first reported suicide on campus on June 24, 2018, and each known death since has only furthered the grief felt by students and highlighted U of T’s acute failure to address the problem.
This incident marks the third death at Bahen Centre and the fourth reported death on campus in less than two years. These are stories that we should never have to report on.
We call on the U of T administration to truly engage with the real pain that students are going through and implement immediate and institutional change.
The university’s lacklustre response
In March 2019, the student body responded to the second apparent death by suicide at the Bahen Centre through a series of protests and petitions calling for the U of T administration to be held accountable and to improve the access and quality of on-campus mental health services. Last year’s sit-in protest at the Medical Sciences Building undoubtedly garnered attention from those in power, yet so far their response has been based more on performative platitudes than meaningful action.
Although students have been calling for measures such as 24-hour counselling services, increased funding to mental health resources, and student-majority representation in policy-making, the university administration has instead focused on the implementation of policies that make little change. Furthermore, these policies are made without the consent of the student population.
For instance, President Meric Gertler’s mental health taskforce, which was formed after the second death in March, has not yet led to any change in policy concerning mental health. Its process has been long and seemingly unproductive, with many criticizing the number of students on the taskforce — four out of 13 to represent a tri-campus student body of over 91,000 students.
The university has also still not taken action to repeal the controversial mandated leave of absence policy, despite continuous student opposition over the past two years. The policy only serves to deter vulnerable students from seeking mental health counselling in fear of facing adverse academic effects. Since the policy’s enactment, eight students have been placed on mandated leave as of August 2019 and the university claims that the feedback has been positive.
We need a proactive administration, not a reactive one
This time around, the university did, to some degree, improve its response. For instance, U of T acknowledged the death on the very night of the incident. On Sunday, U of T announced plans to improve safety around the Bahen Centre, including the implementation of structural barriers. While this does not tackle the underlying issue, evidence has shown that installing physical barriers around suicide hotspots is associated with a reduction in suicide deaths.
This is a step in the right direction. However, the issue remains that the university behaves reactively, as opposed to proactively. The addition of safety barriers had been recommended by students after the first death as a precaution against further incidents, but the university has only now announced changes to the now-infamous building. This step comes far too late.
When it comes to funding, the administration has often shifted the blame or responsibility to other institutions, including the provincial government. In an interview with The Varsity, President Gertler said, “We are not funded by the provincial government to be a health care-delivering organization.”
This is not an adequate response; the university, with its wealth and stature, could take a stand if it chose too. Specifically, it should immediately and significantly invest in funding to improve the services provided at the Health & Wellness Centres on all three campuses.
This means reducing wait times for initial appointments and phone calls, ensuring follow-up after initial intake, and removing limits on the number of annual appointments students can access. Furthermore, any changes to mental health policy should be done with the consultation of students; ideally a large and diverse group of representatives.
On responsible mental health journalism
Irresponsible journalism from campus and mainstream publications alike certainly does not help with the crisis we are currently experiencing. Research suggests that media reporting can influence vulnerable people and that irresponsible media coverage is associated with higher rates of suicide.
Accordingly, a 2017 paper from the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA) set out guidelines for reporting on suicide. For example, it suggests omitting the word “suicide” in the headline, or in any prominent spot online or in print.
However, a recent Toronto Star article did not meet these guidelines, as the word was put both in the headline and several times throughout the article. Fellow campus publication The Mike made this same mistake in a response to Friday’s death.
We were most disheartened when our colleagues at UTM’s student newspaper, The Medium, recently decided to publish an opinion piece which advocates for “The case for personal responsibility” when it comes to mental health. The article reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the structural nature of the mental health crisis, employs victim blaming, and does not support its opinion with enough credible scientific backing.
We acknowledge that The Varsity is also not perfect, so we wish to draw attention to the issue and encourage responsible reporting in good faith. We hope that these practices become more widespread as the journalism community, including ourselves, learns more about the mental health crisis.
The province must play its part
Although Gertler’s shifting of responsibility to the provincial government is not an adequate response to the crisis, the government is not in any way blameless. In July 2018, the Ford government cut $335 million from planned mental health funding that year. Cuts to services such as the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) have made it increasingly difficult for students to access support.
As of 2018, 61 per cent of first-entry undergraduate domestic students rely on some form of financial assistance, and such cuts further serve to increase anxiety. Responsibility falls to the university to do what it can to alleviate the implications of financial uncertainty on students’ mental health.
Though it sometimes feels like the responsibility for student mental health services is being passed from group to group with no avail, there is truth in the assertion that this issue must be tackled in a multi-level, multi-faceted way. There should be a shared responsibility for the provision of mental health and wellness services to students in need, and this begins with adequate funding for universities.
The provincial and federal governments have both pledged additional money toward mental health this year, but it is unclear how much of it will be directed at students and young people specifically. This is, hopefully, a step in the right direction, but the urgency of the situation at the University of Toronto requires more localized action.
We stand with student advocacy
Student organizations have stepped up in the midst of lacklustre responses from government and university administrations through calls to action and solidarity. Last spring, a group of 15 students published an outstanding report entitled “Nothing About Us Without Us,” outlining student action, testimonies, and demands from the student population. Students have made impassioned and powerful pleas for action to the administration, and while the response remains underwhelming, this strong leadership does not go unnoticed by vulnerable students.
How Many Lives? is another example of a student-led initiative that hopes to produce actionable change. The resilience and determination of student leaders is inspiring, but it is difficult to advocate in darkness. U of T has yet to formally release data on student suicide rates, citing privacy and contagion. But withholding this information only serves to help the university, not students.
This university is not the haven it strives to be. If the administration refuses to admit to its failures, students will continue to suffer. At this point, enough is enough. We have no further patience for rhetoric. U of T: listen to students, and take radical, immediate action to support students from the moment they step foot on campus. The mental health crisis is an emergency, and we cannot stand for any more deaths in our community.
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].
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.