Since the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health released its recommendations on how to reform mental health services earlier this month, students groups have been vocal in expressing both support and disapproval of various aspects of the report.
Generally, the aspect of the task force’s report that received the most appreciation from student groups was the acknowledgement of a harmful university culture that does not prioritize student wellbeing. Student representatives remained critical of the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP), the removal of which was one of their biggest demands.
The report argued that students’ opinions about the policy were driven by misinformation, and that the university should keep UMLAP in place while working to counter the misconceptions about it.
The Varsity interviewed several student group representatives to see if the task force met students’ demands.
University of Toronto Students’ Union
Arjun Kaul, Vice-President, Operations for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), wrote to The Varsity, addressing areas of possible improvement for the report.
Kaul criticized the vague language in the report regarding the university’s culture of academic excellence. “I would like to see more specific ways of addressing the problematic nature of ‘academic rigour’ at the university, since this is usually a problem with department-specific solutions,” wrote Kaul. He further advocated for the introduction of “more expansive and efficient ways to make professors and instructors aware of the [problems]” students may face in a difficult academic environment.
He applauded the university’s decision to remove verification of illness forms and replace them with self-declared sick notes, an idea that the task force report found to have universal support. He also commended the task force’s recommendation to create a clearer policy on reporting student deaths by suicide, and informing the public about its methods.
Lastly, Kaul criticized the lack of student representation, one of the ongoing criticisms of the task force: “I know that they could have done this with better student representation.”
Scarborough Campus Students’ Union
Scarborough Campus Students’ Union President Chemi Lhamo criticized the generalized nature of the task force, and a lack of relevant recommendations for the satellite campuses.
Lhamo noted that UTSC has a large population of racialized students, and “close to 70 per cent of students dependent on [Ontario Student Assistance Program],” in an email to The Varsity. “The numbers of student visits to our food centre continues to rise and they disproportionately represent women and international students.”
Lhmao expressed that although she was happy with the direction of the task force, she wants to wait and see how the recommendations are actually implemented.
“This report is a generalized report of the three campuses, however to address the concerns of UTSC students, you need to listen to UTSC students.”
University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union
Atif Abdullah, President of the Mississauga Students’ Union, echoed the same idea, noting that the report “failed to recognize the systems of oppression that play a vital factor in Student Mental Health and the ease of access for those coming from marginalized backgrounds.”
On what the report did well, Abdullah wrote to The Varsity that the administration acknowledged the need for a cultural change at the university to allow students to make mistakes. However, he criticized the report for not addressing concerns about the UMLAP.
“We look forward to continue pushing accessible academic policies; like the Self Assigned Illness Notes and the removal of subscription based services, structural changes like free education, challenging systems of oppression and empowering students to demand better mental health supports,” wrote Abdullah.
Students for Barrier-Free Access
Joshua Grondin, Chair of Students for Barrier-Free Access at U of T and former Vice-President University Affairs for the UTSU, described the new partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) as “terrifying” in a tweet.
He elaborated in an email to The Varsity that for students with mental health concerns, “CAMH also represents the forced hospitalization that we have had to experience, as well as the loss of autonomy that many disabled people have in making their own decisions.”
Grondin also criticized the treatment of UMLAP in the report, writing that, “Students have voiced their concerns at all stages of this policy’s development — we are fully aware of its scope and its applications.”
Mental Health Policy Council
In a response to the task force’s report from student activist Lucinda Qu on behalf of the Mental Health Policy Council (MHPC), she wrote that the MHPC is “cautiously optimistic.” She identified several positive recommendations of the task force, such as more diverse mental health service providers, more training for university staff, and increased case management support.
Its central complaint also centred around UMLAP, and a concern that “many key concerns raised by activists, student groups, and even the Ontario Human Rights Commission remain unaddressed.” Going forward, the MHPC expressed concern that the policies for reviewing UMLAP are not thorough enough, and that students might be under-consulted during review.
The MHPC had previously called for the dissolution of the task force on the grounds that it lacked significant student representation.