Content warning: discussion of suicide.
On Sunday, March 17, a student died by suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. The death was followed by student protests that criticized the U of T administration for its inadequate response and lack of mental health resources. Below, three students provide brief responses to The Varsity’s news coverage of the death and the protests that followed.
A lifeless response from the administration
Following what the University of Toronto has placidly deemed the “incident,” which occurred in the Bahen Centre on Sunday, and its lukewarm acknowledgement of the peaceful protests that followed, the administration’s true colours are showing.
In follow-up tweets, U of T has offered nothing but empty platitudes, student services with fatally long wait times, and various unaffiliated hotlines. In short, it is directing students outward — to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Good2Talk, and the Distress Centre — and washing its own hands of any institutional accountability.
In remaining silent on the crisis of student suicide, U of T simultaneously silences students who suffer. Their continual inaction proves that U of T is more concerned with preserving its “boundless” reputation than addressing a crisis that continues to take lives. After three reported deaths on campus in less than a year, I ask the administration: how many more will it take?
Students have spoken out after watching their peers needlessly suffer, demanding change. Yet U of T changes nothing, instead redirecting students to external partners or to a severely under-resourced Health & Wellness Centre. These practices have proven ineffective; serving only to normalize the issue and incorporate suicide into our university experience, the administration suggests that this is something we should anticipate.
Suicide is totally preventable, and preventative measures are not drastic or expensive. Life-saving changes include increasing the abundance and availability of trained professionals on campus, removing caps on counselling sessions, and dissolving the mandatory-leave policy.
Ensuring the safety of its students should be U of T’s first priority. This begins with acknowledging the ongoing crisis and changing mental health policies to reflect reality.
The University of Toronto must understand that its prized reputation cannot exist if students are not around to maintain it.
Rose Gulati is a second-year English, Political Science, and Women and Gender Studies student at Trinity College.
Say the s-word
It is time for U of T to say the s-word: ‘suicide.’ In the official response to the recent death at Bahen Centre, that word was strikingly absent. Instead, it was euphemistically referred to as “the recent incident.”
We could debate the reasons why ‘suicide’ was absent — fear of liability, bad press, or contagion — but I would rather talk about why it needs to be present.
Suicide is not a dirty word. It is, however, the second-leading cause of death among Canadians aged 10–29. As students, we have been talking about its frequency on campus. But as long as the administration remains afraid to say ‘suicide,’ we are missing out on the many proven opportunities to prevent it.
We do not need to look far for evidence to support this fact. In Toronto, deaths decreased after a barrier was erected on the Bloor Viaduct. There are also plenty of researchers affiliated with the university who study suicide. I work with one of them.
At St. Michael’s Hospital, I am a peer facilitator and co-educator of suicide intervention groups and trainings. In these programs, we have seen how, when we acknowledge suicide, we decrease its association with secrecy and shame and open up opportunities to increase awareness and skills pertaining to coping with emotions and distress, problem-solving, and naming and identifying feelings and needs. Safety planning, for example, is an evidence-based intervention and relatively simple to implement. It helps people recognize warning signs, coping strategies, and support systems.
I would like to see U of T offer safety planning workshops and develop a suicide prevention strategy so that we do not only talk about suicide after the fact. If we can’t name the problem, then we can’t talk about solutions. There are strategies and supports that help; suicide should not have to be the end of anyone’s story.
Gina Nicoll is a third-year Psychology student at Woodsworth College.
We need fundamental change
What is most shocking about the recent deaths on the U of T campus is how few people knew that they had actually occurred. Talking to people at the protests, it became obvious that this was no accident. The culture of academic competition that U of T creates also extends to the way in which the university treats such tragedies. The fact that we had to congregate simply to find out if someone we knew had died by suicide is ridiculous.
I believe that the protests on Monday emphasized, more than anything, how many of us have been made to feel lost and alone because of the environment that U of T fosters. Of course, I don’t doubt that the administration mean well on some level. But the fact that the ‘academic rigour’ on which U of T prides itself has created a situation where we are made to put our own health at risk for the illusion of success can’t be ignored.
The protests, I believe, provided a necessary shock to U of T’s system. Of course, the aim is to work with the administration, not counter to it. But it first needs to acknowledge that this isn’t a funding issue — for all the sanctioned notices and abstracted notions of mental wellness, we need fundamental change from the administration. We need a detoxification that requires much more trust in the student body than the university currently vests.
As I put in my section of the speech that resulted from a collaborative effort between protesters and that was read to the Business Board on Monday, we need change on three fundamental levels. Firstly, we need an acknowledgement; we don’t need to publicize their names or situations but to deny the plight of these victims is to deny their existence. Secondly, we need a more accessible variety of mental health care, one that contains at least steps toward services like 24-hour counselling and guidelines for unaccommodating and harsh professors. Thirdly, and most importantly, we need a large-scale reframing of the way that U of T treats its students.
As we showed on Monday, we won’t stand to be pitted against each other anymore.
Arjun Kaul is a fifth-year Neuroscience, Cell & Molecular Biology, and English student at St. Michael’s College.
Disclosure: Kaul co-organized Monday’s protests.
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.
Editor’s Note (March 20, 10:30 PM): This article has been updated to clarify that the individual who died by suicide was a student.