ZACH KOH/THE VARSITY

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

U of T’s Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health wrapped up its months-long consultation period on November 25, leaving mixed reviews from student groups that participated. The consultations touched on numerous topics, including student representation, the academic climate at U of T, and the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP).

Background

The task force was formed on March 28 as part of President Gertler’s action plan to address student mental health and wellness, following two student deaths by suicide on campus between January and March of 2019. Throughout the summer and fall, the task force has been engaging in its outreach process to review U of T’s current services relating to mental health and potential new solutions. 

Earlier this month, the task force released a draft summary of the themes that arose during its consultations, and is scheduled to provide its recommendations to U of T in December.

In addition to reaching out to individual community members through online forms and in-person feedback sessions, the task force highlighted a number of student organizations that it would consult with. The Varsity contacted these groups to hear about their experiences.

Most interviewed student groups had positive feedback to share along with their criticisms, including feeling validated during consultations. The Innis College Student Society and the St. Michael’s College Student Union had only positive feedback to report.

Concerns about representation

The UofT Mental Health Policy Council (MHPC), a newly created mental health advocacy group on campus, wrote to The Varsity that “the Task Force’s structure and mandate make it a poor [representation] of student interests.” The MHPC also took issue with the prioritization of professional and academic experience above the lived experiences of applicants for the four student representative positions on the task force.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Vice-President, Operations, Arjun Kaul, wrote to The Varsity explaining that the union “took the time to criticize their non-student-led model” when meeting with the task force. Kaul also noted that no changes to the task force’s structure were made following the UTSU’s suggestions.

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union President Chemi Lhamo wrote that there is no representation of UTSC in the student members of the task force, even though it has its own nuances as a satellite campus. The student representatives on the task force are composed of two graduate students, an undergraduate student from UTM, and an undergraduate student from UTSG.

Of the student groups that responded to The Varsity’s request for comment, only the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union confirmed that student representatives from the task force were present at its consultation.

A spokesperson from U of T clarified that in order to ensure confidentiality and comfort of students at these consultations, Professor Bonnie Kirsh from the Department of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy, and Director of Critical Incidents, Safety, and Health Awareness for the Faculty of Arts & Science Caroline Rabbat, led the sessions. Kirsh and Rabbat then shared the feedback they received with other members of the task force.   

Harmful academic culture

Kaul believes that the draft summary of themes was “a good step,” however, he does not believe that the themes have put enough onus on U of T itself. Kaul cited the section in the themes document on culture at U of T and pointed out that the task force largely used language relating to students’ perception and beliefs about harmful academic culture.

“The reality is that there is an institutional rot at the heart of U of T’s academic system, not a simple problem with students’ perception,” wrote Kaul.

Morgan Watkins, President of the Students’ Law Society, wrote that “mental health needs should be a priority consideration in all university policy areas.” Watkins gave the example of taking a wider scope when it comes to mental wellness during exam times. That is, considering the structure of curricula from a mental health perspective could mean refraining from “automatically deferring to 100% exams” in the Faculty of Law, rather than simply providing extra resources during exam time.

Watkins asserted that this type of an approach to harmful academic culture focuses in on “structural barriers to addressing mental health & wellness on campus, rather than being reactionary.”

A U of T spokesperson noted that the draft summary of themes is still in the editing process and feedback from students will be taken into consideration.

University-mandated leave of absence policy

While Mental Wellness Commissioner on the University College Literary and Athletic Society, Aanya Bahl, did “appreciate the time… and attention to detail” in the draft summary of themes, she did not feel that students’ concerns in regard to the UMLAP were adequately presented. “[UMLAP] was only spoken about twice in the drafted list of themes… they’re not admitting that it’s the policy that needs to be changed,” Bahl told The Varsity.

One suggestion for the UMLAP that Bahl had was that the policy should enter into specifics about what supports they provide a student once they’re removed from study.

The U of T spokesperson informed The Varsity that university staff are working on an awareness campaign to counter misconceptions about the UMLAP.

Disclosure: Aanya Bahl writes for The Varsity‘s Science Section in Volume 140.

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.

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