The University of Toronto may be known for its academic rigour, but its infamous reputation for widespread stress and unhappiness is sadly not undeserved, and its ongoing student mental health crisis remains unresolved.
In order to address this complex and urgent issue, many changes need to be made to the university’s educational framework, with an immediate focus on policies regarding individuals in crisis and on long-term, student-centred projects that rewrite course structures and programming.
Immediate changes with regard to students in crisis
A cursory glance at how U of T has handled students experiencing mental health crises — those at serious risk of harm to themselves or others — already reveals glaring issues with how the university has been treating its students.
Those in crisis seeking help have often been criminalized and dehumanized for their struggles; there have been too many instances of students being publicly handcuffed and escorted into police cars, then taken to hospitals where they are forced to remain without being consulted or informed of treatment plans.
Struggling students have also been subject to the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP), which forces them to leave school, seemingly for the benefit of their mental health, even though this may not be the best course of action in every individual case. The policy will be up for review in the fall of this year.
The university should take responsibility in ensuring that students seeking help for their mental health are treated in a compassionate and empathetic manner, and urgent revisions to procedure are necessary to ensure that nobody is stripped of their agency, authority, or basic humanity when they are in crisis. Additionally, the university administration should offer full support to students as they make plans for their health care and future schooling.
My concern with the UMLAP is that it presents itself as a catch-all solution to students in crisis when it is actually a means to get them out of the way so the university no longer has to deal with them. In reality, leaving the university altogether may not prove to be productive to their recovery process, and without the structure and social interactions offered by university life, some students may even find themselves spiralling further.
Instead of forcing students in crisis to leave U of T, the university should work with each individual student to determine the most logical course of action for them, which may instead be a reduced course load or improved accommodations and support within the school.
Long-term responsibilities and revisions
Looking to the long term, the university needs to take on the responsibility to ensure that students can access timely and appropriate care for their mental health, as failure to provide support for at-risk individuals can lead to rapid deterioration of their well-being.
For some students, long-term care is often inaccessible and inadequate, with waitlists of up to several months for first-time consultation appointments.
The school should direct resources and funding to help students access continuous and effective care in a timely manner. This could mean additional programming within health and wellness or additional insurance coverage for those seeking external treatment.
For many students, academic concerns make up the main source of stress in their lives, as their performance in school directly impacts other aspects of their lives, including funding for the future and prospects for further education and employment.
Those who are already struggling — especially nowadays, during a pandemic when we are all subject to additional uncertainty and anxiety — should not have to take on this extra burden when extended deadlines and alternative projects or testing options could be directly coordinated with teaching staff.
The university should look to restructure courses to create smaller, more manageable class sections so that students and instructors have the opportunity to connect and work out individual plans, and more flexibility within syllabi should be encouraged to reduce stress for everyone involved.
Role of student advocacy
While shifting and reshaping the educational framework to take into account both short- and long-term considerations, students should have the ability to voice their concerns and ideas so that they can help make concrete contributions to positive, sustainable change. Any changes made to the educational system will affect students first and foremost, so they should have a say in how the university decides to proceed from now on.
Giving the student body an opportunity to share their lived experiences should be a priority for the university administration, so that they can better understand what issues to focus on. A high volume of input from representative groups across the student body would be useful in creating more nuanced and detailed guidelines to deal with students’ mental health.
Although most youth tend to be affected by similar issues — economic instability, the climate crisis, and most recently, the pandemic — the university is a highly diverse community where students of different demographics may be particularly affected by certain concerns.
Daunting financial challenges, systemic and societal discrimination of all forms, and compounding disabilities may all contribute to poor mental health in students of various groups, and the university should consider these factors when revising its frameworks and policies.
Giving students the power to stand up for themselves and others on such an important and pressing issue will allow us all to create more relevant, comprehensive, and empathetic policies and systems.
In addition, the success of a student-led movement for change regarding education and mental health would not only lay out a clearer path for other campus advocacy groups to make their voices heard, but would also empower them to work collectively with the university to make large-scale, lasting progress at U of T and beyond.
All of us have to take action now
In the future, we will continue to face complex challenges when trying to rethink our educational systems and policies, and it is critical that we all take an active role in this process. Although we may not have the final say in university policy or course structure, there are still many ways in which students can and must advocate for change on this issue.
We can encourage our student governments to make mental health a priority, organize events designed to raise awareness and support students in need, contact our instructors to make them aware of our concerns and challenges, and write letters and petitions to our administration demanding them to do better — not tomorrow, but today.
Andrea Zhao is a first-year life sciences student at Victoria College.