Content warning: discussions of suicide.
On March 17, another student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.
We’ve lost at least three members of our student community to suicide this school year. Their stories are not mine to tell.
On March 18, I was one of five students allowed into U of T’s Business Board meeting. Students deserve to know what happened in that room. This is a story I can tell.
Like most students, I learned of the tragedy through Facebook on the night that it happened. I stayed awake refreshing my home page. By the next morning, students had created an event page called “Protest UofT’s Inaction.” Word spread quickly. Hundreds of us planned to unite in peaceful protest outside of President Meric Gertler’s office on King’s College Circle from 2:00 to 6:00 pm. When I arrived at Simcoe Hall, students were protesting outside, while Campus Police officers blocked access to the inside. Hearing that a meeting was taking place on Simcoe Hall’s second floor, four of us went to the back door of Convocation Hall to try the elevators. The elevator wouldn’t budge without a key.
I felt the sting of an obvious metaphor as I kept pressing the button. Only a select few have access to the top.
We gave up on the Simcoe sit-in and made our way to the Medical Sciences Building, where we heard the Business Board meeting would be moved. We got as close as we could to the office before Campus Police blocked off the next door. Students sat in the hall, maintaining a clear path to the door and any exit route. We’re not in the camp of blocking the way. Eventually, someone came from the meeting to offer three students a seat in the meeting. The spots filled up immediately. I ran up to Lucinda Qu, a student activist who was about to go in.
“You have to talk about the mandatory leave,” I urged.
“I will, I promise,” she said. I sat back down. A few minutes later, the same person who let three of us in came back out. There was room for two more students. This time, I was one of them.
The two of us joined the three other students sitting at the back of the room. During the meeting’s first few minutes, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr acknowledged the recent tragedy and addressed mental health on campus. She mentioned new support systems for students in crisis at this time, and underscored last year’s investments in new counsellors and additional aid.
When the provost finished, my fellow students and I were poised to continue this discussion, but the board secretary changed the topic. “The main focus of our meeting today is student fees and budget,” he said. The students’ concern over U of T’s mental health crisis was not ‘the main focus,’ at least not here. Someone gave us copies of the 2019-2020 budget report. I opened the booklet to the centre spread and saw bold white letters on a glossy blue background: “Priority Investments.” A metaphor put into words. As Governing Council members discussed budgetary planning and tuition changes, I realized that our demands for better mental health services were not a priority investment. I looked at the other student who had walked in with me.
“Wait — what exactly are we here for?” they asked me. This student held a framed picture of their friend who had died by suicide. Five students were physically present in the meeting, but when I looked at the picture, I realized that we were six. Perhaps, in some form or other, we were even more.
“I have no idea,” I said. I had no idea why — or how — a regular budgetary meeting was happening as though students weren’t protesting outside, as though a student hadn’t died the day before.
On the back of the budget report, I scribbled notes on why the university’s mandatory leave of absence policy fails to comply with the criteria outlined by Ontario Human Rights Commission. The other students compiled a statement about U of T’s mental health crisis on a public Google Doc, where students from the outside chimed in with online suggestions. There weren’t just five of us in the room. There were dozens.
After 45 minutes of budget talks, the board secretary addressed the elephant in the room: the students. He gave us a few minutes to speak. Lucinda read a statement on behalf of the students who could not make it into the room.
“To the thousands of us that will spend years of our lives here,” she said, “and to the handful of us who will end our lives here, this is disheartening.” My heart sank and a lump rose in my throat. Lucinda read sections of the collaborative document where students had listed inadequate responses: “It is UNACCEPTABLE to have waiting lists for access to mental health services. It is UNACCEPTABLE to have understaffed and unresponsive counseling services.”
In the Google Doc, students capitalized “UNACCEPTABLE,” flagging the need for emphasis. Lucinda’s voice carried this collective inflection. I think my voice would have cracked. “Time and time again,” Lucinda said, “we have participated [in] fruitless discussions with people who are supposed to be our allies.” The board secretary interrupted her. “I’m going to ask you to sum up,” he said. Crucial discussions become fruitless when cut short. Despite the impossible task of condensing a crisis in one minute, Lucinda pressed the administration to work with us “in a public, honest, and materially significant capacity.”
The secretary thanked her for “that thoughtful and well-articulated presentation.” President Meric Gertler expressed his shared concerns and thanked everyone who contributed to the statement. “We recognize that institutions like this university can and should do more to address these issues,” he said.
The president stated that the university has “invested in good faith — not bad faith — in many service improvements across all three of our campuses, and the investments are quite substantial. Clearly, there is the need to do more.” He continued, “I just want to signal here an openness, and indeed an enthusiasm, to work with students in good faith and in a very open way to solicit your advice and your ideas on how to do better.”
Regehr spoke next. She said that the administration will continue to invest in mental health, while acknowledging that many of those current investments fall short. “With respect to consultation,” she added, “we will absolutely continue to meet with our students. Professor [Sandy] Welsh and I meet regularly with our student leaders, and that is an issue that is on the table and we commit to continuing to do that.” In response to calls for systemic change at U of T, Regehr explained that the university has a “new expert panel on the undergraduate educational experience.”
When the provost finished, the board secretary thanked us again for this moving speech before moving on. I put my hand up. “I’m sorry, we can’t take questions at this time,” the secretary said.
I didn’t have any questions. I had a statement.
“We need to address the mandatory leave of absence policy,” I said. “A student died this weekend, and we can afford to spend a few extra minutes listening to students. I don’t know when I’m going to have another opportunity to share why U of T’s mandatory leave of absence policy is unacceptable.” I stumbled over every word. I was already standing and ready to read when the board secretary granted me permission.
“I think you should be allowed to read it, but I’d ask that you keep your comments to one minute,” he said. “It’s an additional request and we’d like to move on with our regular budget meeting, so please keep your comments brief.” I spoke for four minutes and 58 seconds. Here is part of what I said:
U of T’s mandatory leave of absence policy is incompatible with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The policy claims to “provide reasonable accommodation to the point of undue hardship” as per the OHRC. On January 29, OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane wrote, “the Policy may result in discrimination” and “falls short of meeting the duty to accommodate under the Code.” By approving the policy after making minor edits, the university sends the following message to students: although the OHRC flags potential human rights violations, the policy still stands, and its administrators stand behind the policy. By stressing the OHRC’s “duty to accommodate,” the policy preemptively defends itself from critique within a human rights framework. If a student is in crisis, the policy claims, “it may not be consistent with the duty to accommodate to merely let the student confront significant negative academic consequences.” By touting a mandated leave of absence as an accommodation, the university misunderstands the OHRC’s policies. This policy fits what the OHRC calls “denial of access,” whereby post-secondary institutions “exclude students with disabilities” and denies them “equal opportunity in their education.” The OHRC also claims “education providers have a duty to accommodate students with disabilities up to the point of undue hardship.” Allowing mentally ill/Mad-identified students barrier-free access to education does not constitute undue hardship; it grants them the equal opportunity that post-secondary institutions must provide. According to specific criteria listed in the OHRC, undue hardship entails accommodations that are too onerous in terms of cost and health and safety.
The policy capitalizes on the “health and safety” criterion of undue hardship by conflating mentally ill people at risk to themselves with those who pose a risk to others, a narrative which perpetuates discriminatory stereotypes. The policy conflates “a risk of harm to self or others” in the threshold for a mandated leave. This scenario maintains that Mad people are dangerous. Most Mad/mentally ill people, however, are not violent but subject to violence. If a student poses a risk to others, however, the university should mandate removal from studies as per the student code of conduct. There are, however, documented incidents where abusers and assailants have been allowed to remain in class and on campus. The OHRC cautions against “ignorance and misunderstanding about people with psychosocial disabilities,” and the policy reveals such ignorance. Students may appeal their mandated leave “no later than 10 business days after the decision.” This 10-day deadline ignores the complexities of mental health. Someone admitted to a psychiatric hospital, as I have been several times, might not be able to contact the university and organize their defence. Students must also apply “at least 30 days prior to the term in which the student wishes to enrol.” A student forced to leave at the beginning or middle of a term can only return in the following term. If a student does not meet the 30-day deadline, the university may “terminate” their registration. The student must organize around their crisis to ensure their post-secondary education is neither suspended nor terminated. A student’s return would involve “periodic review,” “verification,” “monitoring,” and “indication that the student may be subject to ongoing conditions.” This kind of surveillance will exacerbate symptoms of paranoia and anxiety that many people with mental illness experience. The policy stigmatizes students with mental health issues. This stigma, the OHRC claims, may “lead institutions to develop policies, procedures and decision-making practices that exclude or marginalize people with mental health disabilities.”
I urge you to revise a policy that is clearly not working and clearly not for us. I suggest a policy designed to mandate the leave of abusers and assailants on campus who pose actual threats to other students, and a separate policy designed to support students in crisis who may pose a risk to themselves. Accommodate us without removing our autonomy. As the policy stands, students are afraid to seek help for fear of being placed on a mandated leave.
My voice shook more than my hands. At this point, I went off script to maintain eye contact with individual members until they nodded.
“We see this policy, we see it in print, we see it in writing, and we are afraid. The consequences of this fear, the consequences of being silenced, [are] life-threatening.” I needed the governors to understand this fear. Last semester, University College’s mental wellness commissioner, Kiana Habibagahi, and I met with Vice-Provost Sandy Welsh to discuss the mandatory leave policy. Welsh said that the policy would be implemented in very few cases. To a person in crisis, this condition means nothing. The fear of being the rare exception keeps students from seeking help.
I thanked the board members for their time and sank in my seat. I cried. My fellow students gave me back-pats and a glass of water. The rim of the cup missed my mouth and most of the water spilled down my shirt, which was already damp from nervous sweat. I was a sopping puffy-eyed mess in a room full of people on Ontario’s Sunshine List.
The provost spoke: “I’ll just respond very briefly. I really want to thank the student for bringing this to our attention.” I tried to listen. I dissociated instead.
“When we brought the policy through last year,” the provost said, “we did undertake that we would be reporting back to governance about use of the policy and we will be doing that, as we promised.” I’m not interested in pulling back governance, or in the policy’s rare application. As long as the policy stands, so does the possibility of it being used against us.
The board secretary thanked the provost before shifting gears. “So unless there’s any other business to be raised by the board, the meeting will now move on —” One of the board members steered the discussion back to the policy, describing it as having “a certain chilling effect.” I sat up in my seat. The unexpected ally continued: “It is a strong concern and I have to admit, having thought about this policy in the months since we passed it, I have more concerns than when we approved it.” This shift from platitudes to critique hinted at progress. I felt, for the first time, that one person in the administration was on our side. He thanked us as we left the room. I’d like to thank him back.
At the end of the hall, two Campus Police officers were waiting to usher us out. An officer placed his hand on our backs to move us through the door one by one, dividing us with a firm push and a loud “Next!” It was as though we were criminals. “Next!” I waited in line behind my four fellow students. “Next!” I have PTSD from a history of sexual assault. Too many strangers have put their hands on my body. “Next!” The officer pressed his hand against my lower back.
“Don’t touch me!”
“Fine,” he said, with a have-it-your-way indignation. I was delirious from a sleepless night and a nightmarish day. And now I was triggered.
When I felt the officer’s hand on my back, Lucinda’s statement came back to me: “It is unacceptable.” It is unacceptable that campus police use intimidation strategies. It is unacceptable that campus police do not consider students who may have a history of trauma, students who come from marginalized communities that are susceptible to police brutality, students who have the right not to be touched. It is unacceptable that I have to include a tangent on the police in this article.
Yet poor mental health care and police intervention inevitably ally. I call on the administration to address the systemic connection between campus police responses and issues surrounding student mental health. In a recent meeting that a group of students and I held with Janine Robb, the Executive Director of the Health & Wellness Centre, I learnt that two years ago, campus police could handcuff students during a mental health crisis. Today, careless campus police actions are symptoms of this sanist legacy.
And to the officer who touched students that day: keep your hands off us.
I finally joined the students who were peacefully protesting in the hall. I knew they’d be waiting for us. Lucinda and I gave brief statements. Microphones and TV cameras loomed. Still, the daunting media apparatus intimidated me less than the board meeting whose members wanted us to keep our statements brief. No one was watching the clock here. I sat back down among the protesters, most of whom I didn’t know. I just knew that I cared about these people deeply and felt their care just as intensely. I cannot overstate the richness of our communal support.
Toward the end of the evening, a group of students lingered in our space of protest. On his way out, Gertler addressed us. He thanked Lucinda and me for our moving speeches. We thanked him for the opportunity to speak. He then expressed a strong desire to engage in further discussions with students.
Students are not interested in being heard without being listened to. It will be the administrators’ privilege to listen to those of us who are still here to speak. When deference doesn’t get us change, we need to make demands. I’m demanding that the administration consult with us and implement substantive policy changes as per our pleas.
“I’ll be honest,” I said to Gertler. “Students feel like the administration is working against us, not for or with us.” Prepositions matter. Consultations matter. These forms of language and communication often go wrong. He assured that he would consult with students.
President Gertler, I will take you up on your offer for further discussions, for meaningful and regular consultations. My friends and I look forward to working with you and your colleagues.
As we continue this work, our responsibility to one another requires respect for those who are grieving, for those who need privacy, and for those whose stories are not ours to tell. Amid the anger, the protests, and the collective demand for change, we cannot forget the mourning.
We cannot forget the seemingly small gestures that just might sustain someone who is struggling. After the protests, the board meeting, the media coverage, the organizing, and the grief of that long Monday, I met up with one of my closest friends. He brought me to his place so that I could do laundry and take a shower. It had been a while since I had done either of those things. The next day, another dear friend gave me Tylenol for a crushing headache and let me lie in her lap for a moment. My friends’ simple acts of care were more necessary than I can explain. I’d argue that helping someone meet their basic needs is more important than reading a statement at a board meeting.
I’d like to end with a note on language. People do not ‘commit’ suicide; they die by suicide as a result of a broken, ableist, and sanist system that does not support those who struggle. Prepositions matter.
On June 24, 2018, a student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre.
On June 27, 2018, Governing Council approved the university-mandated leave of absence policy.
We warned the administration that the policy would dissuade students from seeking help, that the risk of student suicide could rise.
We hoped we wouldn’t be right.
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.