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One year later: U of T’s progress on the mental health task force recommendations

Incomplete items include centralized booking website, electronic records
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The task force was created in 2019 to examine mental health services at U of T. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
The task force was created in 2019 to examine mental health services at U of T. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

In December 2019, U of T’s Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health released a series of recommendations on mental health that were all accepted by the president a month later. The task force was formed following a student death on campus in March 2019. 

The task force was directed to review four areas of concern for student mental health, with a mandate to examine the climate of student mental health and conduct consultations, as well as provide recommendations to evaluate mental health services and programs. 

Although student groups had criticized the task force for lacking student representation, the groups considered some of the task forceʼs recommendations a step in the right direction

Previously, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr told The Varsity that there was no concrete timeline for the recommendations to be implemented and that they would take effect as soon as possible. Now, almost a year later, campus student groups continue to identify an ongoing mental health crisis in the wake of another student death earlier this month.

In the mental health task forceʼs final report, there are 21 recommendations sorted into seven general categories. Many of the recommendations are about the four main areas the task force was mandated to examine: mental health services and delivery at the university, coordination of services between the three campuses, community partnerships, and improvement of the physical spaces in which mental health spaces are offered. In addition to the four mandated areas, the report also touches on three additional topics — the culture at U of T, institutional systems and policies, and next steps for mental health reform.

The Vice-President and Provost’s website offers a section to keep track of the task force’s progress, listing 36 action items divided into five categories. Currently, some recommendations have been completed, others are in progress, and still others have not yet been completed, with no clear timeline for when they will be completed.

Mental health service delivery

Completed items in this category on the Division of the Vice-Provost’s website include the expansion of My Student Support Program, the establishment of drop-in counselling at Robarts Library during exam season, and the introduction of same-day counselling at UTSG. During the pandemic, most mental health care appointments at UTSG have been virtual or over the phone.

Several items remain “in-progress,” including the extension and coordination of student health insurance plans. Under the current University of Toronto Graduate Studentsʼ Union health plan, for example, those who are eligible are covered for only $500 per year for mental health services like private counselling and therapy. 

Other items in progress include the launch of a single website for mental health services and the adoption of a single letter for accessibility services across all campuses and divisions.

Broad items remain in planning stages, including the adoption of an online booking and electronic records systems. Many ongoing items are broad, such as the expansion of “the diversity of [U of Tʼs] services, service providers, and partnerships.”

Culture of caring and excellence

The task forceʼs final report noted that U of T has a “strong reputation for its culture of academic excellence” and concedes that the pressures from this culture need to be balanced with mental health concerns. As well, students who were consulted by the task force mentioned that other non-academic obligations impact well-being. 

Only two items under this category have been completed: the appointment of a special advisor on the Healthy Labs Initiative — a project to improve resources for graduate student-run labs — and the making public of the “approach to communications in the event of a death of a U of T student.”

More than half of the items under this category remain in progress. These include establishing a standing advisory board on graduate mental health, addressing concerns on institutional policies and structures that “can sometimes act as barriers to student success,” and identifying lab management best practices through the Healthy Labs Initiative. 

Two additional in-progress items in this category are improving the understanding of the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy and conducting a review of the policy. The policy has received strong criticism because it is viewed as a reactive response to mental health, and students feel it is discouraging to those seeking help. 

Partnerships, physical spaces, and financial resources

The last three categories on the Vice-President and Provost’s website also had a few recommendations. Under community partnerships, U of T and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health began a partnership last year, and the recommendations in progress are about strengthening the relationship between the two institutions.

The university also plans to renovate the Health & Wellness Centre and evaluate other physical spaces available for students on campus. Under financial resources, U of T has completed the items of making health and wellness a priority in the budget, and is currently advocating for more mental health support from the provincial government and continuing to fundraise to support student mental health.

Institutional systems and policies

The handcuffing of students requiring mental health care is mentioned in the final report under the category of “Institutional Systems and Policies,” and the report recommends that “this practice be reviewed by the University and that a trauma-informed protocol to support Campus Police in their evaluation of the safety and risk of students transported to the hospital for further assessment be developed.” 

Further, it notes that the university should also consider other “methods of transporting students to hospital for emergency psychiatric assessment.” Additionally, there is a recommendation for campus police to undergo enhanced mental health training.

U of T Media Relations was not able to respond to The Varsity’s request for comment at this time.