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“A huge mistrust”: UMLAP town halls receive concerns about mental health disclosures

UTSU survey finds half of respondents less likely to seek help due to fear of policy
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ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY
ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY

On March 23 and 31, U of T hosted town halls for community members to provide feedback on the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP) as part of the policy’s three-year review. Participants expressed concerns that the policy discourages students from seeking mental health support. 

The town halls are part of a wider consultation process that was scheduled to end in May but was extended until the fall after requests by several student unions. They were hosted by lead reviewer Professor Donald Ainslie and Assistant Dean of Student Success and Career Support Varsha Patel, who is a member of the review team. 

Of the 85 individuals who took part in the town halls, a majority were students, but several faculty members and other staff were also present. 

The UMLAP was approved by the Governing Council in June 2018. The controversial policy allows the university to place students on leave if they pose a potential threat to themselves or others, or if they are unable to fulfill essential tasks required to pursue an education due to mental health-related issues. 

Data on UMLAP usage

Ainslie opened each of the town halls with a presentation on the policy. He explained that the UMLAP has been invoked a total of nine times from 2018–2020 — eight times in the 2018–2019 academic year and once in 2019–2020. Five of the nine students have since returned to their studies, including one who returned in the 2020–2021 academic year. 

Six of the cases were “urgent situations” in which a student’s behaviour posed a “significant risk of harm to others.” Ainslie said that when a situation is designated as ‘urgent,’ “it allows the university to remove the student from campus and protect the university community.”

Ainslie also noted that, in the 2019–2020 academic year, division heads requested the vice-provost students to invoke the policy seven times, though authorization was only granted for one case. Data on the number of UMLAP requests from division heads was not tracked in 2018–2019. 

In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson said that division heads have requested that the UMLAP be invoked three times so far in the 2020–2021 academic year. All three requests were granted by the vice-provost students. 

This brings the number of times the UMLAP has been invoked since its approval in June 2018 to a total of 12. Full data for the 2020–2021 academic year will not be released until the fall.

The spokesperson also wrote, “One issue Prof. Ainslie and his team will be considering includes the question of how best to track race-, disability-, and other equity-related data on the use of the Policy, given the small numbers involved. The review team has already met with the university’s Equity Directors to hear their thoughts on the Policy.”

UTSU survey on perception of the UMLAP

On March 23, University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Vice-President Public & University Affairs Tyler Riches presented the preliminary findings from the UTSU’s survey of its members regarding their perceptions of the policy at the town hall. 

Of the 135 survey respondents, 47 per cent had a negative impression of the UMLAP, and 38.1 per cent had neither a positive nor negative impression of the policy. However, 49.8 per cent of respondents indicated they were less willing to seek mental health support from the university due to the possibility of the policy being invoked. 

“There are actual real tangible concerns with the language and with the structure of the policy itself that we believe needs to be addressed,” said Riches. In an email to The Varsity, they wrote that the UTSU is planning to analyze the survey data and craft a set of recommendations. The UTSU hopes to receive feedback on these recommendations from its membership before submitting its findings to the UMLAP Review Team and university administration in the early fall. 

The UTSU was also one of the unions that asked the university for the recent extension to the UMLAP review process. In an email to The Varsity, Riches welcomed the change, writing that “extending the timeline for the policy review into the fall semester will allow for more students to participate in the consultation process and get informed about the policy.”

However, Riches wrote that they want to see the university promote these town halls more effectively. “It’s likely that most students aren’t even aware that this process is happening.” Additionally, they noted that the session should be held “in a neutral and impartial way, without bias towards the administration and the current iteration of UMLAP.”

Concerns about the UMLAP deterring students from seeking help

Other town hall participants also expressed concern that the UMLAP deters students from seeking mental health support from the university. 

“The threat of this policy [being used against them] really disincentivizes students from disclosing mental health struggles or concerns both within and outside of the university,” said one participant. “There’s a huge mistrust between students and the institution.”

“The threat of being put on mandated leave if I come forth to the university about my mental health is likely to make me avoid coming to the university about my mental health at all costs,” said You-Jin Kim, a second-year student at UTSC.

In response, Ainslie said that the policy is only invoked in extremely rare cases “when all the normal ways in which we accommodate students with health challenges aren’t working for one reason or another.”

When asked about how the UMLAP would affect existing financial assistance, Ainslie acknowledged that it is different for each case. He indicated that the university may offer tuition remission or connect the student with an Ontario Student Assistance Program advisor to help students manage their financial needs while on leave. 

Some participants also raised concerns that a mandatory leave of absence would affect students’ housing arrangements. Director of the Office of the Vice-Provost Students and Student Policy Advisor Melinda Scott, who answered questions in the town hall chat, wrote that students who are placed on leave will each be assigned a case manager. Scott added that the case manager will “work with them to ensure they have safe, supportive housing.”