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“We care deeply for their well-being”: U of T admin addresses Bahen Centre death at Business Board meeting

Students lambaste board members following protests outside Simcoe Hall

“We care deeply for their well-being”: U of T admin addresses Bahen Centre death at Business Board meeting

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

In response to what they perceive as U of T’s lack of action on mental health following a suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology — the second death to occur in the building in the past year — students passionately argued for accountability and increased mental health services at yesterday’s Business Board meeting.

The latter half of the silent protest held yesterday afternoon to pressure U of T on its perceived lack of mental health support coincided with a meeting of the Business Board, a U of T body that handles financials, public and community relations, and alumni affairs.

The meeting was supposed to be held in the Governing Council Chambers in Simcoe Hall but was moved to the Medical Sciences Building last minute after students began a sit-in protest outside the rooms.

U of T students Lucinda Qu and Kristen Zimmer delivered stinging rebukes of the university’s mental health resources during the meeting.

Following the board’s open-session discussion on regular business, Qu was given permission to read a statement from an online document that she had shared in the Facebook event page for the protest.

She told the board that “the university is ignoring the needs of students in a blatant attempt to take the onus off of its administration for our mental health, safety, and well-being.”

Qu criticized long delays in mental health services, a lack of 24-hour support, unaccountable professors, and “deeply problematic and retraumatizing” counselling as unacceptable given the university’s “recklessly dangerous” competitive environment.

“To the thousands of us that will spend years of our lives here and to the handful of us who will end our lives here, this is disheartening and it must change,” she said.

U of T President Meric Gertler, who was attending his first Business Board meeting of the year, said that the university can and should do more to improve mental health support. He added that the university’s consultations have been in good faith and that significant investments have already been made for mental health support.

“I just want to signal here and now an openness and, indeed, 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,” he said.

U of T Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr said that the university has “made many investments, but that those investments have not yet reached the point where [they are] meeting all the needs.”

Regehr cited the university’s mental health framework committee — responsible for managing the university-mandated leave of absence policy — and its expert panel on the undergraduate educational experience as two existing initiatives that support students.

The controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy was passed last year and allows the university to place students on leave if their mental health poses a risk to themselves or to others, or if it interferes with their studies. The policy drew criticism from the Ontario Human Rights Commission and was heavily protested by student groups.

After Regehr’s statement, Zimmer addressed the board, saying that “a student died this weekend and we can afford to spend a few extra minutes listening to students.” The board secretary granted her permission to speak, but asked her to keep her statement to one minute.

Zimmer gave an impassioned plea for the university to remove the “dangerous” policy, which she said “is clearly not working and clearly not for us.”

“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 is life-threatening,” she said.

In an interview with The Varsity following the meeting, Gertler emphasized that students’ mental health is a priority for the university and said that he wants to continue working on the issues and challenges that students face.

“Student well-being — mental, physical, emotional — is right at the top of the list. This is why we’re here. We are the university for students and about students. So clearly, we care deeply for their well-being.”

Gertler pointed to the lack of provincial and federal funding for creating new mental health supports for students, and that the university has advocated for increased funding for several years but never received sufficient funds.

He also said that there are numerous faculty and staff working to support students, and in response to requests from students for an open forum with university administrators, hopes to ensure “quality input and meaningful dialogue.”

In response to a question about whether the university is in any way culpable for the multiple suicides that have occurred on campus, Gertler said that he couldn’t address that question because the university needed much more detail.

“We know that these are adults we are talking about and we have to provide every opportunity for them to seek the kind of services that they require,” he said.

“But it’s a shared responsibility: families, friends, society more broadly, as well as the individuals involved. It’s part of a much broader conversation, a much broader effort.”

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.

Former U of T Chancellor Michael Wilson passes away at 81

Wilson was Trinity College alum, ambassador to the United States, Canadian finance minister

Former U of T Chancellor Michael Wilson passes away at 81

Michael Wilson, former U of T Chancellor from 2012–2018, passed away on Sunday after a battle with cancer.

Wilson, a Trinity College alum, had an illustrious career in politics and academia, having served as Minister of Finance from 1984–1991 under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Wilson was also the first MPP to serve in the newly created Etobicoke Centre riding as a Progressive Conservative from 1979–1993, going on to hold high positions in various Bay Street consulting and financial service firms.

Wilson was later appointed as Mulroney’s Minister of Industry, Science and Technology and Minister of International Trade. During his time in government, he helped to negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Wilson returned to U of T in 2003 as the Chancellor of Trinity College, a role he served in until 2006.

In 2012, Wilson was appointed Chancellor of U of T, serving another three years after his first term ended in 2015 — he was succeeded by current Chancellor Rose Patten.

Wilson was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2010, a position reserved for Canadians who have demonstrated some of the most notable services and innovations to Canada, both nationally and internationally. He also established the Cameron Parker Holcombe Wilson Chair in Depression Studies at U of T in 2009.

U of T President Meric Gertler issued a statement in remembrance of Wilson shortly after his death, celebrating “his comprehensive excellence, his unassuming generosity and his quiet compassion.”

“From spearheading public policy of the highest significance to publicly confronting the challenge of mental illness, Michael Wilson was a true champion,” wrote Gertler. “It is one of the great privileges of my life to have worked closely with Michael Wilson in the advancement of the University and the causes he cared about so deeply.”

“On behalf of the entire University of Toronto community, I extend heartfelt condolences to Michael’s beloved wife, Margie, and their family at this sad and difficult time. Thank you for sharing your husband, father and grandfather with us so generously.”

At all three campuses, the university’s flag will be flown at half-mast until the day of Wilson’s funeral. A book of condolence will be available in the Simcoe Hall lobby for the U of T community to sign from 1:00 pm on Monday.

Two homeowners charged with negligence after house fire took the life of UTSC student

First-year student Naiqi Helen Guo killed, three others escaped

Two homeowners charged with negligence after house fire took the life of UTSC student

Four months after the house fire that took the life of UTSC student Naiqi Helen Guo and injured one other woman, Toronto Police have charged two landlords with negligence.

Guo was an 18-year-old first-year student pursuing a degree in Management and had come to Canada by way of Hebei Province in China.

Her body was found in a second-floor bedroom in the home she shared with three other U of T students at 10 Haida Court, near Ellesmere Road and Military Trail.

The fire occurred around 2:30 am on May 10.

Weisong Zhou, 47, and Yu Jing, 45, both of Toronto, turned themselves into police on August 31.

They each face nine counts of arson by negligence, one count of criminal negligence causing death, and one count of criminal negligence cause bodily harm.

Police allege that the two failed to provide proper fire protection and safety for their tenants.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

The couple own six properties around UTSC. The day after the house fire, they evicted tenants at two properties without notice.

A Toronto Star investigation found that at least one of their properties is in an unsafe condition.

UTSC has long had a history of students living in dangerous but inexpensive housing, due to the pronounced shortage of dorms on campus.

Students call for better mental health supports in wake of Bahen death

U of T criticized for response to incident

Students call for better mental health supports in wake of Bahen death

In the wake of the death in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology on June 24, members of the U of T community have been criticizing the university’s lack of response to the incident, as well as calling for greater mental health supports on campus.

The death was confirmed by Toronto Police on the evening of June 24, and did not appear to be suspicious. As such, Toronto Police has declined to comment further on the incident. In a statement from U of T Media Relations to The Varsity, spokesperson Elizabeth Church declined to provide any more information, as it has “a responsibility to respect the privacy of those involved.”

“The university is offering support for members of our community who have been affected by the tragic incident at the Bahen Centre Sunday,” wrote Church in the statement. Church also provided a number of hotlines for students, faculty, and staff to use, which have been appended to this article.

Between the time of the death and U of T’s statement the following afternoon, the Bahen Centre had reopened and exams continued as scheduled throughout the day.

A tweet from U of T’s Twitter account said that the “Health & Wellness Centre is available to support anyone affected by the recent incident at Bahen,” but the university has not made any other public acknowledgements of the death.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) also released its own statement in response to the death, saying that it extends its “deepest condolences to the victim’s loved ones.”

“We are here to offer our support to any community members who may have had the opportunity to engage with the victim in their time on campus, as well as any who may find themselves personally affected by this tragedy,” the statement said.

When asked by The Varsity about U of T’s response to the incident, UTSU President Anne Boucher said that “more initiative could have been taken to address the situation. However, I can see why the university might have decided not to respond to such matters, as they can be very triggering to some.”

Boucher also called for “a different approach to mental health everywhere,” which includes increasing the number of mental health practitioners “and removing the rigid cap on visits that unfortunately leave many students without care.”

These calls for greater mental health supports were echoed by others online.

Maddie Freedman, a U of T student, made a public post on Facebook that has since been shared more than 200 times, saying that she was “appalled at the hypocrisy of the university’s response to a student’s death,” as the university was preparing for a final vote on the controversial mandated leave of absence policy, which has since been approved.

The policy, which was passed on June 27 and implemented effective immediately, puts students on a leave of absence if it is deemed that their mental health problems pose a danger to themselves or to others, or if it negatively impacts their studies. It was passed with much opposition from members of the U of T community.

Freedman also criticized the university’s response of offering hotlines for the Health & Wellness Centre, calling it “notoriously unhelpful.”

Laibah Ashfaq, another U of T student, also made public posts on Facebook and Twitter saying, “The education system is failing students.” Combined, Ashfaq’s posts and tweets have been shared or retweeted nearly 200 times.

“There’s no shame or guilt in taking some time to figure things out and get help from professionals,” wrote Ashfaq. “There are amazing counsellors and social workers on campus at [Health & Wellness] that really take the time to understand you and your situation.”

Church added that students seeking help from Health & Wellness “should identify that [they] are seeking support related to the incident in Bahen,” so that the centre can be “prepared to see them immediately.”

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues, 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

Faculty and staff may access the Employee & Family Assistance Program at and 1-800-663-1142.

On the digital age and loss

Exploring the changing nature of death in a digital world

On the digital age and loss

Social media has changed the way we deal with death and loss because individuals retain an online and digital presence, even after passing away. Social media profiles, websites, and blogs are not always taken down post-mortem, and photos and videos of the deceased continue to exist on social media forums. According to an article by The Loop,  deceased Facebook users could outnumber living users by  2065.

We remain alive in some sense — on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or on our personal or professional blogs. There are machines that keep us alive in our final moments in hospitals, and there are other machines — laptops, computers, and mobile phones, that keep us digitally  alive after that.

The way our parents and grandparents dealt with their loved ones’ deaths is so different from  the way we do. Those in the older generation have little to no access to digital profiles of the people they lost. Before social media, when somebody was dead, there were only memories and  maybe a few pictures, nothing more.  Now, a form of interaction with the deceased can and does continue online.

It’s quite unsettling that somebody could die and people could potentially continue  to visit them. This means those who have died maintain a visual, tangible presence. In addition, it has never been easier to capture and later access photos, videos, and voice recordings. Besides an online presence, we have the ability to hold onto digital memories of the deceased, and we are able to share these memories across forums.

We have an instant connection to people and events worldwide, but we are also building a legacy and memorial through our online profiles. In the past, only certain prominent people were granted legacies or memorialized, but the rise of digital technology changes that.  Sometimes we record more than the significant events of our lives, as some of us also keep track of the insignificant, trivial things — where we had dinner, what movies we watch, and  what memes made us laugh.

[pullquote-default]You no longer have to visit a cemetery or a place of worship — you can remember the deceased from right where you are. [/pullquote-default]

Social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter have different policies on memorializing people online. Facebook provides several options. It allows you to request that your account be memorialized after your death, or you can have it deleted. Nobody can log into a memorialized account, but if a legacy contact exists, they can change the profile picture, respond to friend requests, and write a pinned post on the timeline. If the deceased did not request memorialization or deactivation on Facebook, loved ones can request the deactivation of the deceased’s account.

Some people choose to share their social media account passwords with friends or relatives who continue posting even after their death, but for those who personally want to keep tweeting or posting after death, services like DeadSocial allow you to do so.

DeadSocial specializes in the digital end of life planning. A user can create messages that will be sent out on social media platforms after they die. DeadSocial is informed of a user’s death because the user can appoint one or more ‘digital executors’ that administrate messages on behalf of them once they have died.

Not only does this online legacy change the way we grieve, but it also means that the potential for learning about those who have passed exists in a different medium. Grandchildren can  learn about their grandparents through their online presence, assuming those forums still  exist. It almost feels as though we are creating some sort of digital soul, something that continues to exist after we are gone.

Part of the grieving process is moving on — not forgetting the person, but understanding that they are no longer in this state of existence with us. The ability to forget is imperative because it allows us to live in the present without the past holding us back, and the digital world makes it harder to forget. In some cases, an online presence can force us to remember the dead, which can make it harder for a grieving person to fully accept the loss and move on.

Grieving can also lose part of the physical component it used to contain. You no longer have to visit a cemetery or a place of worship — you can remember the deceased from right where you are. Old photo albums have become galleries on phones, and precious handwritten letters have turned into text messages — always available and accessible.  This draws out the grieving process, surrounds mourners with it, and makes it hard to separate grief from daily life.

Maintaining an online connection to loved ones after their death is definitely something to ruminate on further. It can greatly shift the way that individuals deal with death; the consequences of this could be comforting, or harmful to the process of mourning.