“Do no harm” are the first words that come to Dr. Judith Friedland’s mind when asked about the role of universities in student mental health. Friedland, a professor emerita in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, has had a career at the university which spans decades. As a student, Friedland earned her occupational and physical therapy diploma in 1960, her BA in 1976, an MA in 1982, and a PhD in 1989. As a professor, she eventually became chair of her department from 1991–1999.

She sat down with The Varsity to talk about her research, her time at U of T, and how both relate to student mental health.

Researching students, universities, mental health

In 2014, Friedland co-wrote a study that looked into the connections between universities and students on mental wellness, and included a sampling of a small number of university students with self-identified mental health problems. “This study provides some evidence that listening to the student voice can help universities to lead the change; to take ownership and responsibility for the well-being of all of their students, including those with mental health problems,” concluded the authors.

During the next year, then-U of T Ombudsperson Joan Foley recommended to Governing Council that a new non-coercive mental health policy be implemented. This suggestion was the origin of the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP), which, three years later, allows the university to unilaterally place students on mandated leave if they exhibit mental health problems that are deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others. A little over a year after the policy’s passing, student mental health has come to the forefront of activism, with new student groups organizing protests against the UMLAP amidst four deaths on campus in the past two years.

Especially relevant now, Friedland’s research drew from her own experiences as a professor, personally working with students who went through challenges at home, felt outside pressure from their families, or felt other pressures from school or work. This led to a focus in her work to “corroborate some of those issues that [she] knew about from experience.”

Friedland talked about the importance of the relationship between professors and students: “I was very conversant [as a professor] with the fact of how many students had mental health issues as well as mental [illnesses].”

Students seeking help from professors in the form of extensions, or simply wishing to talk, need a connection with professors: “[if] there isn’t that kind of empathetic relationship, not necessarily emotional support, but just good old-fashioned empathy and understanding, then right away that student’s got a barrier toward getting help and is being stigmatized to some extent,” said Friedland.

“My guess is there’s still a number of people around teaching these days who don’t really believe totally in the stress that a lot of students are under.”

A culture supporting poor mental health

U of T’s stressful culture, coupled with increases in financial and housing insecurity, all play into why Friedland believes that mental health has been on the forefront of many students’ minds. However, she maintains that the literature is still unclear and undecided on concrete connections. “I would like to see more emphasis put on how the university can deal with some of that,” commented Friedland on the ways in which universities can support students.

On the UMLAP, Friedland admits to not being completely caught up on the discourse, but did comment on the perception that the policy is punitive through its wording.

“Just the word ‘mandated’ somehow sounded very punitive as opposed to helpful… In mental health and occupational therapy and psychiatric work, we talk about a therapeutic alliance,” Friedland said in explaining her hesitations about the policy. “Whoever is trying to help you, makes an alliance with you, and so you’re moving forward together… that terminology that it’s ‘mandated,’ it sounds like something so arbitrary.”