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Opinion: Another student death reinforces the need for better mental health support

The administration’s many promises have not translated to sufficient action
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ISABELLA TAN/THE VARSITY
ISABELLA TAN/THE VARSITY

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

On the morning of November 3, The Varsity reported the fifth death of a U of T student since June 2018. This news isn’t only heartbreaking because of the sheer fact that another life has been lost in the student community, but also because this life was lost under an administration that has consistently turned a blind eye to the critical importance of actively supporting student mental health. 

While the ongoing pandemic has opened our eyes to the importance of mental health as we continue to tackle the physical and emotional challenges of online learning, it has also exacerbated the issues with the university’s approach to mental health and student well-being. 

As members of a community who have mourned the devastating loss of peers in the past, students need to come together and hold U of T accountable for its inattention in re-evaluating the structural flaws that have allowed the mental health crisis to continue. 

U of T is known for an academic culture of excellence and toxic competition, and criticisms on the extent of U of T’s mental health support are nothing new. 

Students have organized protests and petitions in response to student deaths in recent years, demanding the administration to significantly improve the quality and level of accessibility of mental health services on campus. In response to students’ pleas for action, in March 2019, following a reported student death on campus, U of T formed the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health. Through the task force, the university committed to review its mental health services and support systems. 

Only a few months later, on September 27, 2019, another student death was reported, marking the fourth reported non-criminal student death over the span of 16 months. Students responded in a similar fashion, collectively expressing their frustrations with the lack of mental health  support from the university at an Academic Board meeting on October 3, 2019. 

What was President Meric Gertler’s response? That administration had listened to us, had heard us, and would “continue to do so.” He added, “we share your concerns, and we are strongly committed to collaborating with you to address them,” a response that students have become too used to hearing.  

In the days after the most recent reported suicide, apart from a statement from New College President Bonnie McElhinny, there has been little from the central U of T administration. Instead of receiving words of acknowledgment from Gertler or a statement on the U of T website students read about the loss of yet another life gone too soon on The Varsity and social media. This is shameful in and of itself. 

The lack of progress following other student deaths gives the appearance of complacency and acceptance that these tragedies are just a part of student life at U of T. 

One reported student death is a tragedy. Five is beyond unacceptable, contributing to a cycle that has become far too familiar for the U of T community. 

“Last November, Vice-Provost Sandy Welsh stated that mental health is a priority of the University but we are once again faced with the reality of inaction,” wrote the Arts and Science Students’ Union in a statement released November 3. 

We are faced with the consequence of the university’s negligence toward students’ well-beings, a longstanding issue that has only become compounded by the impacts of a pandemic isolation being at the top of the list. 

As students and faculty navigate a new environment of remote learning and teaching, it is important to recognize that not every student is doing their studies in the comfort of their family’s home or in the living room of a cozy apartment shared with friends and housemates. There are students who are isolated in dorm rooms without roommates, living alone, and not in a position to physically surround themselves with the comfort and stability of loved ones. 

During the particularly stressful period of midterms and soon-to-be finals season, students’ tendencies to fall into feelings of isolation, stress, and anxiety have been intensified by this new learning and living environment. That being said, student mental health should hold an indefinitely strong place at the top of our administration’s priority list. 

Just as students and faculty continue to re-adjust to the changes brought by the pandemic and its accompanying safety regulations, U of T has a responsibility to re-evaluate its priorities as an academic institution in a way that recognizes the larger picture of what is at stake: the mental well-being of its students during this challenging time. This is long overdue. 

While U of T has made it clear that mental health resources and support are available to students, the university needs to do more to advertise its resources. Advertising U of T news articles saying, “We are here for you when you need us,” is not enough and, quite frankly, reads as an empty promise at this point. It is one thing to publicize these messages of support and care. It is another to put these words into practice. 

Despite virtual supports such as My Student Support Program, a forum in partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health where counsellors can answer questions from struggling students, and Navi, an app that connects its users to the different mental health services provided here at U of T, students are still struggling and burning out. While these programs are promising, another student death indicates that they are not adequate.

It should not be up to students to ensure that their peers are okay and receiving support when they need it. It is without question that an increased amount of pressure must be placed on the university to take proactive and immediate action. All we can do as students is continue to advocate for positive change by demanding that greater efforts be made by our administration in the name of student mental health and well-being. 

 

Mélina Lévesque is a fifth-year political science and sociocultural anthropology student at Victoria College. She is an associate comment editor.

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.