Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

On October 2, Natalia Espinosa, a third-year student at UTM, was handcuffed by campus police at the Health & Counselling Centre (HCC), as first reported by The Medium. Though she had arrived at the HCC that day to seek support for suicidal ideation, Espinosa told The Varsity in an interview that she left the HCC in police custody, and was then escorted to Credit Valley Hospital.

In the aftermath of the news, student groups around U of T have strongly criticized the university’s policies, further strengthening their calls for change around how the administration is handling mental health. Though the university explained that its procedures are in line with local law enforcement practices, it told The Varsity that it will be reviewing its policies in light of this event.

The events of October 2

Espinosa described how, as a UTM student, she had always been told that she should go to the HCC in the event of a mental health crisis. Her friend and fellow U of T student, Anita Mozaffari, urged her to seek help, and Espinosa, with Mozaffari by her side, obliged and went to the HCC to request a meeting with a psychiatrist.

Upon arrival they were informed that the process of seeing a psychiatrist involved three steps. Espinosa would have to be seen by a mental health nurse, and then a doctor, before she’d finally be able to discuss her health issues with a psychiatrist. This process, they were told, could take a month or more.

Then the HCC receptionist notified them that the mental health nurse was not in that day. Espinosa told The Varsity that she became distressed upon hearing that she may not be able to immediately receive care. As she became more and more visibly upset, the HCC receptionist reportedly allowed Espinosa in to see a regular nurse.

With the nurse, Espinosa developed a safety plan which involved her staying the night with Mozaffari. After the plan was approved, the nurse then told Espinosa that, per U of T protocol, she would have to call campus police to have a “10–15 minute talk” with her before she could leave.

Two campus police constables arrived and Espinosa told them about her prior intention to end her life, and that her plan had included a specific location. The officers then told Espinosa that because her plan included a real location, they would have to place her under arrest and transport her to a hospital.

“I told them that I would be more than willing to go to the hospital,” said Espinosa, and yet campus police insisted that she needed to go in handcuffs. Once the handcuffs were placed on her, Espinosa began to experience a panic attack. She recounted how her distress was met with silence from the constables: “It seemed like the police didn’t know what they were doing.” In fact, it was Mozaffari who jumped in to calm her down.

Mozaffari described to The Varsity that the officers were ready to take Espinosa to their car, even while she was actively experiencing mental distress. “They didn’t even think to stop and calm her down and care for her.”

Espinosa was led out of the HCC and through the Davis Building, with a jacket placed over her handcuffs. Since the police car was not ready, she had to stand in the entrance to the building and face the stares of those passing by, making her feel criminalized.

They would not let Mozaffari ride with Espinosa to the hospital, and while she was alone in the back of the police cruiser, Espinosa experienced another panic attack and vomited.

Espinosa was admitted to the hospital and her handcuffs were eventually taken off. She was able to receive care and will continue seeking support there. In light of this incident, she said that she no longer trusts the mental health services provided by U of T.

Mozaffari sees this event as being indicative of a larger issue at U of T. Not only does she find the handcuffing protocol to be damaging, but she was shocked that someone who was suicidal, as Espinosa was that day, was asked to wait a month or more to receive care.

Espinosa also believes that U of T is not doing enough to combat mental health issues on campus and is angered by the actions of campus police in this situation. In light of her treatment, she has filed an official complaint with U of T.

Law enforcement policy on mental health

In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson explained that while they cannot comment on any specific case, “The safety and wellbeing of those involved is the primary consideration in any situation” for the university. U of T will be re-examining their policies in light of this incident.

Mark Overton, Dean of Student Affairs at UTM, further explained that not all cases in which a student is suicidal will result in campus police bringing the student to the hospital. “It’s very much on a case-by-case basis.”

A number of considerations go into whether or not a campus police constable decides to handcuff and transfer a student to a hospital, with one main consideration being the expression of specific intentions to harm oneself. Overton went on to clarify that handcuffs are involved in order to ensure that individuals deemed at risk are safely brought to the hospital.

Both Espinosa and Mozaffari agree that having a protocol that involves handcuffing students who are reaching out for mental health support will deter those who are most vulnerable from coming forward. “When you’re in such a vulnerable position, you need to be treated with dignity and respect, and you need to be treated with care, because ultimately I believe this is a health care matter. It is not a police matter,” said Mozaffari.

Espinosa also claimed that, “The fact that they’re using handcuffs… is criminalizing and creating more stigma around mental health.” She further noted that she finds it unacceptable that law enforcement can act in mental health situations without health care professionals present.

Mental health at the intersection

Espinosa and Mozaffari believe that mental health is particularly pressing for those at an ‘intersection,’ such as women, racialized peoples, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

As a racialized woman, Mozaffari acknowledged that there are barriers to accessing mental health services for some more than others, and that police interactions can take on a radically different tone depending on your identity. “There will always be a slight fear when you’re interacting with police because statistically, they will treat you with more violence.”

Espinosa would like to see more services and initiatives aimed specifically at members of marginalized groups who experience mental health issues. She also wishes to see more diverse representation among those who handle people experiencing mental health crises, noting that her interaction with a female police officer that day was a much more calming experience than when she was interacting solely with male police officers.

After the events of October 2, Espinosa and Mozaffari told their story to Beverly Bain, who teaches at UTM. Bain has since begun advocating on behalf of Espinosa and will soon be releasing and circulating a letter to raise awareness of what happened to her.

Bain spoke with The Varsity to discuss the issues at hand.

Bain believes that for racialized women such as Espinosa, there is a greater vulnerability inherent in reaching out for mental health support. “It exposes them, it also puts them in a situation where they feel that their agency is denied… When they try to assert agency and voice [their needs] can easily be put in a situation where they can be put in danger by those law enforcement individuals.”

Bain sees the reason for this being that “women are not supposed to speak up, they are not supposed to say no, they’re not supposed to challenge authority.”

Community responses

In response to the events of October 2, the UTMSU released a statement condemning the actions of the police constables who put Espinosa in handcuffs and the policies that allowed this to unfold. “These actions taken by the HCC and the police are shameful and further the intimidation and discrimination that students face on our campus when accessing mental health services.” The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the Association of Part Time Undergraduate Students, and the U of T Students’ Law Society all announced their support for the statement.

A petition has also been released calling for the university to publicly apologize for handcuffing Espinosa and to improve mental health services on campus. As of publishing time, the petition has over 130 signatures.

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