Content warning: mentions of suicide.
On October 3, Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost Students, addressed U of T’s Academic Board and a handful of protestors in an unusually full Governing Council Chamber: “I want to assure all of you that we share your concerns.” The protestors showed up following the September 27 death of a student in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology — the third in the same building and the fourth reported non-criminal student death in the past 16 months. Students, led by the UofT Mental Health Policy Council, a newly-created advocacy group, had come to express their frustration and exhaustion with the percieved lack of mental health support from the university.
Inside the chamber
Welsh reiterated the university’s actions toward increasing mental health support, having committed $3 million in the spring. They also acknowledged the university’s role in student mental health: “We are proud of our academic culture of excellence, but we understand that we all need to be aware of how that culture may affect students, and we all need to work to foster a more supportive community to help all of our students thrive.”
Disruption from protestors as the chair attempted to move the meeting back to normal business resulted in an agreement to allow four of the protestors to ask Welsh and President Meric Gertler questions. The four included U of T Mental Health Policy Council members and students from the Black Students’ Association.
“How many deaths was it going to take for you to do something before we made a ruckus and a mess of things?” questioned Shahin Imtiaz to a silent chamber of governors. “How do you sleep at night?”
Gertler responded after the students spoke, explaining the commitments of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health as well as the $1 billion Boundless campaign endowment for financial assistance to students.
“These are indeed issues that do keep us up at night,” said Gertler. “They do indeed seize all of us.”
An issue that became clear during the meeting was an unintended side effect of the university-mandated leave of absence policy, deterring students from seeking mental health support for fear of punitive action from the university.
“There is not a straight line from your registrar’s office to my office around this policy. And we need to do better at communicating… to students that this is a policy that is there to be supportive,” said Welsh in response to student demands that the policy be repealed.
However, after their allotted time to speak was over and the administration had given its response, protestors left when governors failed a two-thirds majority vote to adopt an amendment to the agenda and continued on with the predetermined schedule.
What happens now?
Besides the implementation of safety barriers in the Bahen Centre, the administration has been hesitant to make new commitments on mental health, even while student groups are increasingly calling for better support and services. Some faculty are also speaking out, calling on fellow professors to support student protestors.
Dr. Andrea Charise, Assistant Professor in the Department of English and at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Health & Society reflected on the death at the Bahen Centre in a thread on Twitter, explaining how professors are often on the forefront of assisting students dealing with mental health crises.
“In my five years’ experience as an assistant professor, I have referred countless students to health&wellness (a pretty common experience among my colleagues). But I was not prepared for the volume, range, and intensity of mental health experiences students entrusted me with,” tweeted Charise.
Jeffrey Ansloos, Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, expressed similar concerns in an interview with The Varsity.
“I’m not in the role of therapists when I’m working with students. And I think for a lot of my colleagues who maybe are not psychologists or social workers or different types of health professionals, the role of what a professor is supposed to provide is unclear, and not only is it unclear, but sometimes they don’t know the resources that they need to direct students to,” said Ansloos. He further pointed out the inaccessibility and lack of mental health support on campus as problems.
“Recognizing that students may not always be able to deliver upon workloads or may need additional accommodations or considerations around accessibility. To me, that is a baseline expectation, that if a faculty member fails to deliver upon, I think is problematic. But I don’t, at the same time, think that every faculty member should be working in the role of therapists. And I don’t know that that would be appropriate either.”