Content warning: mentions of suicide.
Following a contentious Governing Council meeting on October 24, U of T student groups have released strong condemnations of U of T Ombudsperson Dr. Ellen Hodnett’s remarks on mental health activism. The student groups criticize Hodnett’s expressed support for the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP) as well as her comment that activists have unfairly used recent apparent suicides on campus to criticize the policy.
The comments have prompted the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and the U of T Mental Health Policy Council (MHPC), a newly created advocacy group, to call for Hodnett’s public apology and open discussions on her removal.
Background on the UMLAP
The issue arose when Hodnett presented her report on the UMLAP. The controversial policy, approved in June 2018, allows the university to place students on a leave of absence if they exhibit severe mental health problems that the university feels pose a potential risk of serious harm to themselves or others. The policy is only meant to be used after all other accommodations have been exhausted.
The UMLAP was passed amidst fierce opposition from students and has been the subject of continued criticism. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released an open letter in the run up to the policy’s approval, expressing its concern about how the UMLAP could “result in discrimination on the basis of mental health disability contrary to the Human Rights Code.” The policy was revised after the OHRC’s letter but students remained firmly in opposition.
This policy was specifically recommended by the Office of the Ombudsperson. In her role, Hodnett reviews university mandated leave cases.
Hodnett addressed the Governing Council following statements on campus mental health from student representatives. She expressed how proud she was of the UMLAP, saying that it provides “extreme care, diligence, respectfulness, and compassion” to the students whose cases have been reviewed under the policy.
She maintained that the policy is evidence-based and fair, in opposition to the continuing resistance toward the policy, which she asserts is based on misinformation.
In an email to The Varsity, Hodnett specified that she sees this misinformation being widely circulated via social media. Her concern is that students will be deterred from seeking help under the UMLAP due to its widespread online criticism and encourages “everyone to actually read the Policy.”
During the Governing Council meeting, the comment that perhaps drew the most ire from students was Hodnett’s claim that recent campus deaths have been used as a “vehicle to link students’ purported fears of seeking mental health services with the mandated leave policy.”
Immediately following the Governing Council meeting, the UTSU released a statement criticizing Hodnett’s remarks, followed closely by a statement published by the MHPC in solidarity. Both called on Hodnett to issue a public apology.
The UTSU condemned Hodnett’s comments for being “offensive” and “belittling.” It sees this as an example of the university administration not listening to its student body.
In a direct address to Hodnett, the UTSU wrote, “The fact that you told those at this meeting that you are ‘proud’ to be part of a policy that has been criticized by the Ontario Human Rights Commission and has served as an active detriment to students seeking mental health support on this campus, speaks volumes about your views on listening to us.”
The MHPC, in its statement, found Hodnett’s comments to be delegitimizing for students with mental illness and their lived experiences. They see the UMLAP as institutionalizing “U of T’s right to force a student experiencing mental illness to lose their student status, services, and housing.”
Campus groups speak out
UTSU President Joshua Bowman and other members of the UTSU said that they were so appalled by what they heard from Hodnett that they began writing their online statement during that very meeting.
In a written statement to The Varsity, Bowman went on to laud the efforts of student activists in fighting for better mental health services and found Hodnett’s remarks to be disparaging against the good work that has been put into advocating for support from the university.
“There is a mental health crisis on our campus and the fact that Dr. Hodnett stated that students grieving the loss of a classmate and community member are doing so in a politically motivated manner against UMLAP is a testament to the dispassionate nature of our university.”
Bowman’s disappointment isn’t solely reserved for Hodnett. He claimed that other meeting attendees, including some in administrative positions, were smirking and dismissive of the statements presented by student representatives at the beginning of the council meeting.
The UTSU’s official position on the UMLAP is that it is a damaging policy. In response to Hodnett’s claim that students have created a culture of fear surrounding the policy, Bowman instead posits that the fear on campus comes from the policy itself.
He claims that this fear is “perpetuated by a policy that saw little to no student consultation and ultimately makes students scared to go to Health and Wellness to seek the care they require.”
In addition to calling for an apology, Bowman wouldn’t find it unreasonable for the university to look into whether Hodnett is suited to her role as ombudsperson in light of her comments.
The MHPC took issue with Hodnett’s statements in part due to her role of ombudsperson — an independent and impartial position meant to ensure that the rights of U of T community members are protected.
“Hodnett’s annual report accuses dedicated mental health advocates on campus of spreading misinformation and intentionally exploiting recent student deaths — a partial and wildly insulting charge to level at the university’s students,” the MHPC wrote in an email to The Varsity.
For the MHPC, its top priority is “to see the UMLAP undergo a drastic rewrite or be repealed entirely.” It places high importance on ensuring that new policies are developed alongside students in order to “remove the structural and implicit barriers that prevent students from seeking help.”
University and Ombudsperson’s response
In a statement to The Varsity, Hodnett affirmed that she stands by her every word.
She wanted to remind members of the U of T community that “the Policy went through extensive consultations and was approved at every level of governance, with active involvement by students throughout, before it was implemented.”
Even though students were consulted throughout the approval process, opposition to the policy contends that this consultation was not meaningful. Indeed, students had criticized the timing and accessibility of the consultations in the lead-up to the policy’s approval one year ago.
Doubling down on the comments made during the Governing Council meeting, Hodnett claims that there is no evidence that the UMLAP is a harmful policy. In fact, she says there is evidence to the contrary — and that the UMLAP is doing “just what it was intended to do.”
According to U of T, the policy has been used eight times in the last year and the university says that in “almost all of the cases” the student affected by the policy has returned or is in the process of returning to classes.
However, it has acknowledged that considerable concern exists regarding the policy.
“We’ve heard students’ concerns that the policy could discourage individuals from using the supports available through the university and we are working to counter the perception that seeking mental health support will somehow trigger the leave process.”
It reiterated that the policy is only meant to be used when other accommodations have been found to be unsuccessful. The university claims that, “this policy is not intended to be punitive, and our experience with the policy demonstrates that.”