U of T to redesign mental health services following task force’s report

Administration accepts all recommendations from student mental health task force
Students have protested multiple times outside of Simcoe Hall to call on Governing Council to improve on the percieved lack of mental health resources. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
Students have protested multiple times outside of Simcoe Hall to call on Governing Council to improve on the percieved lack of mental health resources. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Content warning: article contains mentions of suicide.

Following a months-long consultation process with the U of T community, the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health submitted its final report on January 15. The report includes recommendations to redesign U of T’s mental health services, as well as a new partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Background

Following multiple apparent student suicides at UTSG and an incident where Campus Police handcuffed a student in a mental health crisis, student activists have been pushing the university to overhaul its mental health services. As early as March of last year, student groups such as How Many Lives and the Mental Health Policy Council were formed, and together with multiple student organizations, politicians, and faculty, called on the university to address what seemed to be a system ill-equipped to handle an overflow of students seeking health services.

While the university formed a mental health task force after a second apparent suicide in March at the Bahen Centre for Information and Technology, it was only after a third apparent suicide in September that the school placed physical barriers in the building. The mental health task force was the centrepiece of the university’s response to what had become a mental health crisis on campus.

The administration’s response

In the Draft Summary of Themes, which the task force released in November, there were concerns regarding the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP).

Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr explained in an interview with The Varsity that the UMLAP is being kept as a policy, but that efforts will be made to educate the U of T community “so that students don’t see it as a barrier to seeking help.”

Regehr continued to say that the policy is used in rare cases involving safety concerns and “provides a way of us being able to address those concerns without having to use punitive measures.”

As far as the redesign of the current mental health services at U of T, Regehr emphasized that U of T already has “excellent” programs in place and that the redesign will be focused on “streamlining access” to services. This will be done with the assistance of CAMH, one of U of T’s several medical institution partners.

The redesign has no specific timeline — “we are addressing issues as fast as we are able to,” said Regehr. In the planning stages is the launch of a single website for mental health services across all three campuses, as well as an online booking system for counselling sessions.

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union President, Chemi Lhamo, expressed concerns in an earlier interview about how the task force would adjust to the nuances that UTSC has as a satellite campus. In response to this, Regehr said that while coordination of services will take place on one system across three campuses, there will be “local delivery” of services that can differ from one campus to another.

The task force’s final report also includes a section on financial resources, and states that mental health and wellness will be a priority for the university in the 2020–2021 budget. The university’s 2019–2020 budget had $17 million available for allocation.

The report also stresses that U of T will continue advocating for more support from the government toward mental health resources. “We continue to have good conversations with government, and we continue to be really hopeful that they will be investing resources into this critically important area,” said Regehr.

When asked if the professional development opportunities on student mental health that the report promises to provide faculty and staff would include Campus Police, considering the incident in 2019 where a student was handcuffed after seeking mental health services, Regehr responded: “Absolutely.”

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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