Content warning: This article contains discussions of suicide.

Mental health is a topic of paramount concern at U of T. The past academic year has incited a change in the way students, faculty, and administration perceive and speak out about mental illness.

Despite the mounting change, U of T remains in a mental health crisis. The Faculty of Arts & Science responded by appointing Chad Jankowski to the newly-created role of Mental Health Programs Officer in July. He spoke at the inaugural Minds Redefined mental health conference at the university, aimed at fostering discussion on the topic of mental health in the Faculty of Arts & Science. 

The conference took place at the Chestnut Conference Centre on September 17, as an eight-hour symposium boasting speakers Michael Landsberg and Margaret Trudeau, together with a plethora of students and faculty hosting workshops on individual wellness. 

Less than a third of the conference’s attendees appeared to be undergraduate students, which may have stemmed from the event being held at 12:00–8:00 pm on a Tuesday.

Keynote speaker Michael Landsberg speaks about reducing stigma around seeking help 

As Jankowski introduced the first keynote speaker, a figure nodded diligently at each credential mentioned. Eventually this figure chimed in, “You know, this is kind of like the start of an [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting,” getting a laugh from the audience. He was Michael Landsberg, a mental health advocate, ambassador for the Bell’s Let’s Talk program, and founder of the charity Sick Not Weak, which aims to redefine the public perception of mental illness.

What struck the audience was Landsberg’s candidness about his depression. He began by recounting his ongoing struggle with depression, describing the illness as insidious. He talked about his lowest point on November 24, 2008, where he came to the realization: “I understand why people take their lives.”

He underscored that mental illness is a debilitating, sometimes fatal, sickness of the brain — one that is hardly talked about in open and effective discourse. Characterizing the stigma toward depression, he asked, “How is it that in 2019, when the leading cause of death in some age groups is suicide, that we still don’t say the word?”

Further on, Landsberg talked about the enigmatic relief of being diagnosed. After visiting a psychiatrist and confirming that he had depression, he recounted a feeling of validation, even one of happiness. To resolve this paradox, he asserted that “if you don’t have a diagnosis, then you can’t have treatment.”

This is one of the central themes he wanted to hit home. Ultimately, in experiencing mental illness, seeking professional help is imperative to beginning the journey of recovery, noted Landsberg. 

One striking aspect about Landsberg’s speech was the breadth of comedy that it boasted. Following the trope of the depressed comedian, he mitigated the heaviness of the themes being discussed with his quick wit. For instance, he used the made-up illness “healthy brain-itis” to discuss the common stigmas associated with depression, propagated by those who haven’t encountered it.

Keynote speaker Margaret Trudeau discusses coming to terms with mental illness

Trudeau was a whirlwind of a speaker, whisking the audience through anecdotes upon anecdotes about her struggle with bipolar disorder. She is a mental health advocate, as well as a bestselling author of four books. She was also the wife of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau until their divorce, and mother of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The coming-of-age, ‘free-spirited’ student can find parts of themselves in her biography, amongst recounts of her experimentation with party drugs and love affairs with a certain Kennedy brother.

The pivotal theme of Trudeau’s speech was coming to terms with mental illness. She asserted that she spent a lot of her life in denial, choosing to be unaware that she had an illness.

This is particularly relevant for students, who often find it difficult to see the difference between the struggle that comes with being a student and that of mental illness. It is hard to characterize mental stress in times of academic stress, insomnia in times of all-nighters, and eating disorders in the ramen-fueled times of disordered eating. 

Trudeau emphasized that “there is so much shame in being mentally ill” due to the amount of stigma attached to it. Accepting that mental illness is a sickness — and normalizing the reception of treatment — is an early step to alleviating the mental health crisis at U of T. 

Is this response by U of T enough? 

Collective student action in response to U of T’s mental health crisis displayed itself last March, with the formation of the “How Many Lives?” student movement calling for U of T to better address mental health and suicides on campus. The advocacy group held a silent protest in response to the lack of action on the administration’s part, after students alleged that the third known suicide within the past two years was inadequately addressed by the university.

While the conference demonstrated that the university is acknowledging the need to speak about mental health and provided wellness resources to students, it did not address more structural barriers.

These include the skepticism associated with accessibility services, and the long wait times and referrals necessary to obtain a psychiatric diagnosis at the Health and Wellness Centre — one of the key points both keynote speakers stressed in the process to get effective treatment.

Such barriers have been discussed by U of T student advocacy groups, who continue to push for a stronger response by U of T’s administration in response to the mental health crisis. 

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.