Op-ed: For mental health, callous attitudes contribute to preventable deaths

Reviewing the development process of the university-mandated leave of absence policy

Op-ed: For mental health, callous attitudes contribute to preventable deaths

Content warning: discussion of suicide.

Earlier this week, a U of T student died by suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. Just last June, another student died under similar circumstances.

Around that time, the University of Toronto Governing Council approved the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP). The UMLAP is intended to help students in distress — like our peer who died recently. As stated in the UMLAP, if a student’s behaviour “poses a risk of harm to self or others,” it can be used to place the student on a non-punitive leave of absence and to provide them with additional resources and accommodations.

With that said, in the first quarter of 2019, there have already been two suicides on campus. With the UMLAP in place and the media attention it has received, students should be reaching out and considering it as an option. However, recent comments from students show clear disagreements with the policy. We need to ask ourselves what impact the UMLAP has really had on campus since its implementation.

Something went wrong

Somewhere along the UMLAP’s development process, something went wrong. I was a member of the University Affairs Board (UAB) of Governing Council when the idea of a leave of absence policy was first introduced in May 2017. At the time, Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh described it as “a welcome Policy” that would provide a “transparent, non-disciplinary and compassionate” process for students to engage in leaves of absence. I distinctly recall the broad support from across the board — myself included.

We understood the need for a policy, both to provide front-line administrators with direction on mental health issues, resources, and accommodations, and to provide students with a voluntary, compassionate leave option when no option existed in their division or program.

It was not until the following academic year at the October 2017 UAB meeting, after my term had ended, that the terms of the proposed leave of absence policy were made public. Students and faculty raised grave concerns with its contents. They included the risk that a student in crisis could be denied access to essential services at their time of greatest need, the fact that individuals with no expertise in mental health could make unilateral judgements on what could be considered ‘relevant information’ when a student was pleading their case, the lack of involvement from regulated health professionals throughout the process, and much, much more.

Within a month of the UMLAP’s release, students self-organized a grassroots Facebook group with over 200 members to coordinate their opposition. Several took the initiative to meet privately with the central administration to discuss their concerns.

In response, the central administration revised the UMLAP and put forth a new version for final approval by the Governing Council’s boards in January 2018. Some issues were addressed. The revised version made clear commitments to the Personal Health Information Protection Act, prohibited the placement of any notation on academic transcripts regarding the leave, and added equity officers as an additional source of support for students subject to the UMLAP. But given that the fundamental concerns raised by students, like the threat of being denied services during a time of need, were not addressed to students’ satisfaction, they continued to raise vocal opposition.

The university and the Ontario Human Rights Commission

Less than 24 hours before the revised version of the UMLAP was slated for recommendation at the January 30, 2018 UAB meeting, Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), sent an unprecedented letter to Ms. Claire Kennedy, Chair of the Governing Council. Mandhane communicated major concerns with the UMLAP. The OHRC recommended that “the Policy not be approved in its current form.”

The letter also referenced a meeting between staff from the Office of the Vice-President and Provost (OVPP) and the OHRC on December 13, 2017. In fact, documents obtained by The Varsity showed that correspondence with the OHRC began as early as December 6, 2017. After the December 13 meeting, the OHRC had stated that it “[looked] forward to receiving a copy of the next draft of the Policy before it enters the governance path for approval.” In response, the OVPP stated that “we will share that we have met informally with OHRC staff about the proposed policy when we meet with student groups in the weeks to come.”

As the OVPP never specified which student groups they intended to share their conversations with, it’s difficult to determine whether they kept their promise. Nonetheless, a comment from Mathias Memmel, President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) at the time, was telling: the UTSU “didn’t know that the OHRC was involved until the [January 30, 2018] UAB meeting.” For context, during this time, the UTSU had met extensively with the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students and several student groups regarding the UMLAP. The fact that the UTSU was not aware of the OHRC’s involvement at the time is concerning.

But perhaps more concerning was the central administration’s behaviour toward the OHRC’s request and at the January 25, 2018 meeting of the Academic Board (AB) of Governing Council. Like the UAB, the AB must also recommend draft policies that impact certain issues before the policy can proceed in the governance path. The OVPP appeared to have declined the OHRC’s request to provide a draft policy prior to the UMLAP’s entry into the governance path.

In response to a direct question regarding the OHRC’s request from The Varsity to Elizabeth Church, Interim Director of Media Relations at the time, Church stated, “I can tell you that the draft policy was made publicly available to everyone to review before it went through governance.” This statement is technically true: a draft policy was made publicly available just prior to the October 2017 UAB meeting, but the January 2018 version of the UMLAP that was made public on the AB meeting agenda was different. By placing the updated UMLAP on the AB agenda, this previously unseen version of the UMLAP had entered the governance path for approval.

Consequently, if the central administration had not provided this updated version of the UMLAP to the OHRC prior to placing it on the AB agenda, it would seem that the central administration declined the OHRC’s request to review the UMLAP “before it [entered] the governance path for approval.”

Based on reports from The Varsity, it appears that the OHRC and the central administration did not have any correspondence between December 15, 2017, when the OVPP responded to the OHRC’s email, and January 29, 2018, when the letter from the OHRC to the Governing Council was sent. If the central administration truly did not send the OHRC a draft of the UMLAP before placing the policy on the AB agenda, the onus of the OHRC’s letter of concerns lies with the university even more. Had the OVPP complied with the OHRC’s request for a draft, changes could have been made and the notice avoided. Also, nothing prevented the central administration from delaying approval of the UMLAP until a later meeting.

Furthermore, the central administration appears to have failed to disclose the OHRC’s concerns to the AB at their January 25, 2018 meeting. An official, detailed record of the meeting shows no mention of any correspondence between the OHRC and the university.

In corporate governance structures like the AB, there is an expectation that management — in this case, the OVPP — provide relevant information that could contribute to the decision-making process of the respective board. This is part of a legal ‘fiduciary duty’ — something of a shared interest toward a common goal among the board members, who oversee the corporation, the management, who deal with day-to-day operations, and the members or shareholders of the corporation. Because management is the source of a significant amount of information about the corporation and its affairs, board members must be able to implicitly trust the information that management provides them to be able to perform effective oversight.

Failing to disclose relevant information can jeopardize the diligent review of information each member of the board is required to perform when making decisions.

Thus, I find the central administration’s failure to disclose the OHRC’s concerns to the AB to be an outrageous, unconscionable, and indefensible act. In light of potential legal liabilities identified by the OHRC, they ought to have done so. I have no doubt that, had the OHRC’s concerns been fairly presented to the members of the AB, the UMLAP would have been met with significant opposition. But these concerns were not presented, so it is no surprise that the AB approved the UMLAP. Just five of the 65 members present, including two named faculty members from the U of T Faculty of Nursing and the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, dissented.

Tokenistic public consultation or sunk-cost fallacy?

Let’s fast-forward to spring 2018. By now, the draft UMLAP had officially been published twice in Governing Council documents. For the first time since the initial draft, the central administration began soliciting public comments from any student, faculty member, or staff on a third, not-yet-official revision. Like the policy development process for the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment passed in December 2016, an online form was provided as part of the public consultation process.

To my knowledge, responses to the form were never released, so it’s hard to know exactly how many submissions were delivered. At the very least, we can assess how the consultation process changed the UMLAP by comparing the third version to the version ultimately approved at the May 2018 UAB meeting.

The similarities between the third version and the final version are striking. If you took each copy and laid them out side-by-side, you would find that the pages and clauses line up almost perfectly. All but three of the 79 clauses are identical, and two of the amended clauses had little impact to the practices prescribed by the UMLAP.

The third and arguably most substantive change involved section 40, which discusses the discretion that the Vice-Provost Students may exercise when placing a student on a University-Mandated Leave of Absence (UMLA). Language was added such that the Vice-Provost, Students “will consult with an appropriate regulated health professional” when considering a UMLA. Previously, there was no requirement for the Vice-Provost Students to consult health professionals. Students had consistently raised concerns at prior UAB meetings regarding the lack of involvement of health professionals and the potential for decisions to be made by administrators with no expertise in mental health. The same concern was also identified in the OHRC’s letter.

Some might allege that the lack of substantive change following public consultation was a reflection of a broader consultation process rife with tokenism. However, I propose an alternative explanation, albeit one that is not mutually exclusive. The central administration had already received suggestions for the UMLAP based on “initial consultations with registrars, academic administrators, deans of students and health & wellness staff” as early as May 2017. The UMLAP was then placed on the governance path for approval in January 2018, where the AB recommended it.

Following the OHRC’s letter, it is reasonable to assume that the central administration sought further legal advice — at great expense — to ensure that the UMLAP complied with the Ontario Human Rights Code. Substantial resources had already been committed to the UMLAP. While just as insidious as a tokenistic public consultation, perhaps the central administration felt that it was not worth turning back at this point. Maybe they felt pressure to proceed, despite ongoing concerns, from the burden of sunk costs.

Regardless, there was a clear disconnection between the concerns raised by students and the changes made after public consultation. And it’s frankly not that surprising. Public consultation is a poor way to solicit comments on a policy that has already been written; it’s unreasonable to expect members of the public to provide usable feedback when a nuanced understanding of the policy’s provisions is required. Public consultation can be extremely useful at the earliest stages of policy development, as potential issues can be identified, discussed, and mitigated before they become cemented in language. However, that time had long since passed.

Instead of a late public consultation process, I suggest that striking working groups composed of members familiar with the UMLAP would have provided more substantive and effective changes.

Good intentions, poor execution

My intention here is not to accuse the university’s central administration of impropriety. Rather, I believe that its actions after the October 2017 UAB meeting reflect a disappointingly callous disposition toward students’ mental health. There were countless opportunities for the university to take more appropriate actions. They should have done better to understand the real consequences and impacts of their decisions. Annual campus police reports show that there have been 12 suicides or suicide attempts on campus between 2014 and 2017. Especially in light of these incidents that came prior to the UMLAP’s enactment, the risk that poor decision-making could contribute to preventable deaths should have been a salient and disturbing thought.

Had the university listened closely to students, they would have heard about the numerous issues that plague our campus today. Their original focus might not have been on redirecting students from disciplinary provisions, but rather on how best to implement a voluntary leave of absence program that could accommodate all students regardless of “harm to self or others.” Despite reassurances, students now worry that disclosing severe mental health issues could lead to denial from campus services.

When you take a closer look at the issues that students discuss in conversation about mental health, they inevitably identify a range of contributing factors. Some students face long commute times, which reduces their time available to study and leads to stress. Others might live closer to campus but take on part-time jobs to help make ends meet — meaning they are similarly affected and are further impacted by financial stress. Students also report stress due to anxiety about their futures and academic pressure.

These and other factors should be described as the determinants of health and mental health, a term used in public health to emphasize the contexts in which individual and population health is experienced. Any campus mental health strategy needs to consider the impact of such determinants and the role that the university plays in mitigating or exacerbating ongoing issues.

Earlier this week, when a member of our community died by suicide this year, students rose. The next day, a grassroots movement drew media attention to a “silent protest” outside Simcoe Hall, where Governing Council and its boards meet a reflection of the unspeakable trauma within the U of T community. Their silence stands in stark contrast with the previously deafening chorus of students who had relentlessly expressed their concerns with mental health on campus. What’s left to say?

Nathan Chan is a graduate student at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the University of Toronto’s Institute of Medical Science. He was a 20162017 member of the University Affairs Board of the Governing Council, 20172018 Associate President at the University of Toronto Students’ Union, and 20172018 Course Union Representative on the General Council of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union.

Disclosure: Chan was The Varsity’s 20162017 Photo Editor.


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.

Op-ed: Reviewing the approved university-mandated leave of absence policy

How we can move forward with the policy and mental health supports at U of T

Op-ed: Reviewing the approved university-mandated leave of absence policy

On June 27, despite a review of the policy’s merits, a letter from the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, and active opposition from every major student group on campus, the University of Toronto’s Governing Council approved a new university-mandated leave of absence policy, effective immediately.

The policy resulted from the 2014–2015 Report of the University Ombudsperson, which encouraged the university to improve its mental health supports broadly. The report’s recommendations included commitments to increasing awareness of support programs, expanding teaching resources, and extending and improving the effectiveness of services.

U of T still has a lot of work to do to meet these commitments and create a culture on campus that values mental health, but its first step was to create a policy, which it claims gives students in crisis the ability to put their mental health first. The policy allows the administration to place a student on academic suspension if they pose a serious risk of harm to themselves or others, or if they are “unable to engage in the essential activities required to pursue an education.”

The policy first drew attention last October and is seen by many students as an infringement upon students’ right to autonomy. Mental health advocates have argued that this policy will push students into social isolation and disrupt their daily life, making depression worse and increasing the risk of suicide.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, one in five Canadians struggle with mental health each year, a number that is magnified among postsecondary students. With so many students affected, there is no doubt that this policy calls into question the university’s commitment to protecting mental health.

Since the policy is here to stay, it is imperative that students understand the policy so that they are able to protect their mental health and defend their rights, should they be affected by it.

There has been a lot of misinformation about this policy. Perhaps the most detrimental aspect of this policy is that many students will now neglect to access university services for fear of being placed on a leave of absence.

Let’s be very clear: students are seriously impacted by a policy which could force them to leave residence, lose access to gym facilities and the Health & Wellness Centre, and become isolated from their close friends whom they need for their recovery. All of these are real costs and should raise serious questions about how the university values mental health.

But the extremely limited scope of this policy means that most students who are seeking help are completely unaffected. We encourage all students to continue to see their registrar, get help at the Health & Wellness Centre, and tell Accessibility Services about how their mental health is affecting their ability to learn.

Students can only be forced to take a leave in very limited and extreme circumstances. The policy is designed to be applied primarily when a student’s behaviour poses “a risk of imminent or serious physical or psychological harm” to themselves or others. Circumstances under which this policy would be invoked would almost certainly cause unnecessary distress for students who are already extremely vulnerable. Such an alarming proposition provides sufficient reason to fight this policy on behalf of our fellow students whose lives are affected so severely.

While these cases certainly deserve our attention, we must also recognize how rare they are in the framework of a large student body. Students in such rare circumstances would also meet the threshold to be hospitalized for their mental illness. Evidently, the vast majority of students who struggle with mental health do not meet that bar.

While students can technically be removed if they are unable to “engage in the essential activities” of their program, the university is first required to provide a host of accommodations ranging from extensions to exam deferrals, involving Accessibility Services, and allowing students to credit/no credit or defer a course. Collectively, we must work to hold the administration accountable for providing these services and supports for affected students.

Many students have also expressed concerns about the involvement of medical professionals in this process. Under the policy, students can still choose to share their assessments at any time. When an expert medical opinion disputes the Vice-Provost’s evaluation of the student’s state of mind, it is likely to be a key determinant in whether the university decides to invoke this policy or not.

For this reason, students should understand that choosing to share personal information could be very helpful to their case. However, if students choose to keep their mental health treatment private, they have the right to do so.

The university can be an incredibly toxic environment for one’s well-being, and we must acknowledge the specific conditions of students who are more likely to be affected by the policy.

Additionally, some students may not be comfortable with disclosing their mental health to doctors or therapists and may instead choose to discuss their mental health with religious leaders, professors, registrars, or close advisors. Requiring the involvement of a medical professional would force the university to value that one opinion over those of other individuals who may be more familiar with a particular student’s case.

The university has taken steps to recognize the specific differences between cases. Not every leave of absence is created equal. Students have the right to negotiate terms and conditions that are consistent with their individual circumstances. This part of the process allows students to try and minimize the disruption that a leave would create for their lives.

Students should use this opportunity to protect what they value: whether that is access to a U of T Health & Wellness counsellor, financial reimbursements for the cost of tuition, temporary housing if removed from residence, access to gyms, or credit for a course that is almost complete.

Students struggling with mental health are also eligible for legal aid, including assistance with immigration in the case of international students. This is a right we must continue fighting to uphold.

The bottom line is that the policy is so limited in scope that it would have applied to roughly five cases last year, in a university of more than 90,000 students, according to the Ombudsperson. Schools including Cornell University, the University of Chicago, New York University, Washington University in St. Louis, Columbia University, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have all implemented some version of an involuntary leave policy.

This does not by any means justify such a policy, but it allows us to analyze the way involuntary leave is exercised. At U of T, students could already have been forced away from campus by being suspended under the Code of Student Conduct when their mental health poses a danger to themselves or other community members. This policy formalizes this procedure and creates a way to differentiate between disciplinary suspensions and health-related leaves of absence.

This policy reminds us of the frequent bioethical dispute about a person’s autonomy when their safety or the safety of others is threatened. Our first priority must always be to combat these issues before they pose more serious concerns, which means providing more effective resources, community supports, and aid to students in need. The university can be an incredibly toxic environment for one’s well-being, and we must acknowledge the specific conditions of students who are more likely to be affected by the policy.

Of course, personal safety is subjective and should include personal assessments, but we must also ensure that our vulnerable students are protected in a way that truly supports them. While this policy may be imperfect, by prioritizing a student’s recovery, it attempts to value personal well-being, at the expense of student autonomy. Whether this is good or bad will always be a point of contention.

When this policy goes up for reconsideration in three years, both affected and unaffected students will once again have the opportunity to voice their opposition. In the meantime, we have a responsibility to ensure that this policy is implemented responsibly and in very few extreme cases, while making it as easy as possible for students to return to campus. We hope that students in this situation can use this piece to be better empowered to exercise their rights.

Since Governing Council chose to pass this policy, we as students will need to monitor developments carefully to defend our interests. All we can do now is wait and see, and be ready to challenge the university administration whenever necessary.

Zeus Eden is a second-year student studying Economics and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies at Trinity College. He is the Assistant Vice-President University Governance of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU).

Joshua Grondin graduated as an Economics and International Relations student at University College in June. He is the Vice-President University Affairs of the UTSU.

Op-ed: Mandated leave policy not disciplinary in name, yet disciplinary in consequence

A critical response to supporters of the recently passed mandated leave of absence policy

Op-ed: Mandated leave policy not disciplinary in name, yet disciplinary in consequence

Last month, the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP) was approved by Governing Council. The near-unanimous vote demonstrates that Governing Council appears to have minimal-to-no qualms about what the UMLAP entails. I, however, still have many.

The recent pro-UMLAP op-ed published in The Varsity argues that the UMLAP is better than the status quo. However, it is important to interrogate how and for whom. In response to much abstract discussion of the policy thus far, I want to break down exactly what the now-approved policy can mean for students moving forward.

Code of Conduct versus UMLAP: a false dilemma

An essential argument made in favour of the UMLAP is that it is better than the prior method of dealing with students with serious mental health issues. Before the UMLAP took effect on June 27, 2018, the university would apply the existing Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters and Code of Student Conduct.

The Code of Student Conduct and its associated sanctions were applied to students who would pose a risk to themselves or others in the community due to mental health reasons. These sanctions included formal written reprimand, denial of access to university services, suspension, and expulsion. The latter two entailed notations on the academic transcripts of the student.

Yet in practice for instances in which mental health factors were suspected, the university would allow for alternative accommodations to the use of disciplinary Code of Student Conduct proceedings. And if the accommodations were unsuccessful including the possibility of the student not consenting to adhere to them the university could exclude a person from campus as per Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). All of this was happening before the UMLAP was even drafted.

With such course of action, you can imagine the university’s governance dilemma: they have the Code of Student Conduct providing alternatives in cases of students with serious mental health issues because they realize the injustice of penalizing such students through sanctions. And one of the alternatives is to exclude them from campus to protect the rest of the university community in accordance with their obligations to OHSA.  

However, this type of exclusion is not defined in any university policy, and hence has the potential to still be defined as “disciplinary” under the disciplinary Code of Student Conduct proceeding, and occur in the form of suspension or expulsion. The rationale for UMLAP arose from the need for the university administrative system to have a specific process in place for dealing with students with serious mental health issues who came into contact with the Code of Student Conduct.

The pro-UMLAP op-ed applauds the university for taking a non-disciplinary approach to matters that were being handled under the disciplinary codes beforehand. I take issue with the argument that the non-disciplinary UMLAP is better than the prior disciplinary code. The UMLAP essentially legitimizes the university’s informal action of removing students from campus under the alternative process to the Code of Student Conduct.

First of all, the passing of the UMLAP does not preclude the university’s ability to apply the other Governing Council policies, including the Code of Student Conduct it says so right in the UMLAP itself. In fact, both policies could be applied against the student if the administration desired. We as students have no reason to believe the university would not do this.

The point of greater concern, however, is the additional powers the UMLAP gives to administrative bodies. In regard to the use of the Code of Student Conduct, the Report of the University Ombudsperson 2014–2015 noted her issue with the internal procedure, stating that she was “particularly interested in how things are done when students exercise their option of rejecting a course of action or conditions on their attendance proposed by an administrator.” This report is cited as inspiration for the UMLAP.

The report reveals that a possible alternative accommodation being offered to students may have been a voluntary leave of absence. Furthermore, in an instance where a student was rejecting this voluntary leave, the university would attempt to or be successful in excluding them off the campus by invoking provincial statutory law. This underscores the university’s specific concern with the exercise of consent by the student under question.

The UMLAP gives the university the ability to force a student to take a leave of absence, which was previously only being utilized given the limbo between the university’s Code of Student Conduct and the OHSA. This is not improvement. Rather, it expands the university’s administrative power at the expense of eroding students’ dignity and autonomy.

The scope of the UMLAP does not only catch those students against whom the Code of Student Conduct was being used — which is now under Scenario 1 of the UMLAP  but now also those students who are “unable to engage in the essential activities required to pursue an education.”

The pro-UMLAP op-ed mentions that the UMLAP sought to “redefine the scope” of the university’s power to remove students from the campus. While this is true, its scope isn’t reduced, but rather broadened, such that the university could apply the UMLAP to more students than it could have with the prior codes. Contrary to the op-ed’s argument, the university then effectively does have a new, explicitly stated, right to remove students, and this is an immense cause for concern.

Do not assume that my argument against the UMLAP is an endorsement for the Code of Student Conduct process. The code is the wrong policy to invoke; however, that does not mean we must tacitly endorse any new policy that replicates the same actions taken under the code, as most of Governing Council recently did. In presenting the UMLAP in its current form as the only salvation the university had from the Code of Student Conduct process on June 27, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr did the university governors a great injustice in order to secure greater control for the administration.  

A zero-sum equation: the university gains control by taking it away from students

Students’ consent in the UMLAP is honoured insofar as a given student agrees to accommodations. However, this is not meaningful consent. If the exercise of your consent can result in the removal of it, then you don’t really have a choice.

If you have any experience in dealing with students in a disciplinary proceeding, then you know mental health is a recurring factor. Last year, I sat on the Arts & Science Council’s Academic Appeals Board, through which I heard many student appeals.

I came across students who were under academic suspension from the Faculty of Arts & Science, who would bring up mental health in their appeals. Yet most often, the core issue was not that mental health was a factor in their inability to continue school, but rather that the lack of support from the university’s bureaucratic system had ensued in a snowballing loss of control, which then contributed to students’ inability to succeed as per the university’s requirements.

At its foundation, the university is an inaccessible system, especially for students with disabilities and accessibility needs. The students I saw on the Academic Appeals Board would have passed the threshold for invoking the UMLAP, which encompasses demonstrating “behaviour where the normal application of academic sanctions (including the possibility of failure in a course, petitions and appeals, etc.) is appropriate and sufficient.”

Many of these students had to seek resources outside of the university before and after the sanctions were applied, and now they had the onus of proving to the Academic Appeals Board why they deserved to have their sanctions, which were unjustly placed because of the university’s disregard of mental health factors, lifted.

The students placed on forced leave under the UMLAP will have to go through the same process. However, under the previous disciplinary process, mental health was not being considered and hence the sanctions were an injustice. This allowed for mental health reasons to be brought up as evidence for appeal. Now, under the non-disciplinary policy, mental health is explicitly considered, such that mental health reasons are weaponized to exclude students from campus in the first place.

Imagine what the appeals framework could now look like with this policy in effect. Prior to the UMLAP, any proceedings under the Code of Student Conduct for students with serious mental health-related issues could be appealed under the Disciplinary Appeals Board at Governing Council.

The decision of the Vice-Provost Students under the UMLAP can still be appealed under the Disciplinary Appeals Board. However, when before the university would have had to rely on reading into the OHSA to exclude students from campus, now they have explicit written power to force students from campus and justify their actions. It makes student appeals against forced exclusion from campus more difficult to win, while their material conditions for the appeals may remain the same.

The UMLAP not only disregards students’ consent and autonomy, but provides the university with more control over the student already grieving a loss of control due to inadequate support in the first place. The loss of control is a core issue for students who face numerous simultaneous and intersecting challenges every day, not limited to financial ability, housing situations, immigration status, and mental health.

Disregarding their consent and imposing a leave of absence will not resolve any issue for the student, but perpetuate it further. This only resolves the issue for the university, which can now invoke the UMLAP as a short-term solution for students instead of investing in long-term improvements of the inadequate mental health support infrastructure currently in place on campus.

With these consequences in mind, students might be less likely to approach university administrators or services in seek of support, given that the UMLAP has the scope to encompass a greater proportion of students with mental health related issues and expose them to the possibility of mandated leave amidst inadequate health and wellness supports.

The list of concerns has no end

Opponents of the policy, including many student representatives, have brought up countless issues with the UMLAP, including demands for further thorough student consultations. Concerns include the UMLAP’s general disregard for addressing the campus mental health crisis at its core, the university’s reluctance to redirect efforts to improving accessibility and support services, and the question of who will determine if mental health reasons are present, and if they have any expertise in making such determinations.

Opponents of the UMLAP have also rightly been critical of the university’s role in being a factor to triggering mental health issues that the UMLAP does not even dare to address.

These concerns were brought in the lead up to and at the Governing Council meeting on June 27. The proponents of the UMLAP chose to cite the pro-UMLAP op-ed as proof of student support during the meeting instead. This selective use student evidence by administration if nothing else is a case in point of the university administration’s lack of meaningful student consultation.

In addition to my concerns with the UMLAP’s overbreadth, disrespect of student autonomy, and general student opposition, there are still many material questions to be answered: the impact of the UMLAP on students’ transcripts and graduate school prospects; the relationship between differential access to mental health support resources due to varying college  memberships and the probability of the invocation of the UMLAP; and the complexity of tuition and fee reimbursements, especially for international students, when the UMLAP is applied. These problems existed under the use of the Code of Student Conduct and the UMLAP provides us no guarantee that they will not continue to exist.

The UMLAP begets more questions than it answers, and the lack of guidelines only multiply the undue stress on students dealing with an already-inaccessible system. Let us remember that mental health in the policy is very context-dependent. The policy is invoked if a Division Head comes to know about a student who meets the threshold. Given that there is a great lack in adequate accommodations within the university structure, the likelihood of students coming into contact with the UMLAP is high.  

Despite all of these concerns, we are left with the fact that the UMLAP is indeed in effect. Our next step as students and members of the U of T community is to keep a watchful eye on the administration and ensure that they do not abuse the UMLAP in the many ways that they now have sanctioned power to do.

Priyanka Sharma is an incoming master’s student at the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies. She was the 20172018 President of the Arts and Science Students’ Union.

Op-ed: Why all families should have ‘the talk’ — and I don’t mean about sex

Mental illness hits close to home, and that’s where the conversation should start

Op-ed: Why all families should have ‘the talk’ — and I don’t mean about sex

When I took on the position of Mental Health Director of the Woodsworth College Students’ Association (WCSA), I knew that I wanted to help students by attempting to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health on campus. What I did not realize at the time was exactly how pervasive that stigma was even within my own family.

When I visited our family doctor in the 10th grade for low mood and exhaustion, my doctor asked a common question: “Is there a family history of depression?” To my surprise, my father did not provide a clear-cut answer. At the time, I assumed the answer as to a family history was simply “no.” But instead, my father said, “not diagnosed.”

It wasn’t until my first year of university, when my brother left university due to mental health issues, that my family finally came clean about our complicated past. It was only after my brother spoke openly about his mental health that I discovered that another member of my family had taken a similar leave from university for the same reason almost three decades earlier. Under these circumstances, I learned that other members of my family have faced lifelong battles with mental illness, often without diagnosis.

In some ways, it seems perfectly normal to shelter your children from your family’s history of mental illness and to protect your family members’ privacy. In other ways, I can’t help but view my family’s silence as another limb of a deeply-rooted societal problem: the stigma around mental illness is what really prevented discussions from ever taking place. What saddens me most about this story is that the shame and stigma that my family members faced in the past is still present today. Archaic policies such as U of T’s mandated leave of absence policy seem to demonstrate the unwillingness of institutions to evolve and better accommodate mental health.

My family’s practice of silence is not unique, and parallels a greater legacy of stigmatizing and trivializing mental illness. Shame and fear have long kept those facing mental health issues from reaching out for help and family members from recognizing signs of mental illness or understanding how to offer support. The more that families sweep their history under the rug, the more difficult the topic of mental health becomes. The more we are taught to hide or be ashamed of our families’ histories, the less likely we are to be comfortable addressing our own mental health. We are taught by example, and we are taught shame through silence.

If families can bridge such difficult waters as explaining sex and consent to their children, why can’t they make room for a topic as important as mental health? Parents should have this ‘talk’ and disclose mental illness in the family to their children. As more studies demonstrate that genetic factors play a role in the likelihood of developing depression and other mood disorders, there is even more evidence for the case that families should be open about their histories of mental health issues. Just like every important topic that a family discusses, having a mental health talk doesn’t have to end with a single conversation — it can be the start of an ongoing dialogue.

So let’s talk, not just one day a year under a corporate hashtag, but often, with our families and our friends. Let’s normalize this discussion, no matter how challenging it is, and let’s listen earnestly and without judgment. We can’t hide the realities of our lineages any longer nor should we want to. We can’t simply hope that our children will never face mental health issues and will never need to know the triggers in their own DNA.

With the approval of U of T’s mandated leave of absence policy, we, as students, may feel that we simply do not have the power to change discriminatory institutions, much less a discriminatory society. But I hope that in 10 or 15 years, when we are raising the next generation, we remember the difference that a conversation can make and the even larger impact of creating continuous dialogue.

It is never too late to start a conversation with our families, and it is never the wrong time to offer or reach out for support. Together, we can be the generation that chooses not to keep our families’ secrets and decides instead to uproot decades of silence and stigma by speaking openly about mental health.

Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society, and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is the Mental Health Director at the WCSA.

U of T approves contentious university-mandated leave of absence policy

Policy to be implemented effective immediately

U of T approves contentious university-mandated leave of absence policy

In a near-unanimous vote, Governing Council — U of T’s highest decision-making body — passed the contentious university-mandated leave of absence policy amid protests from students. It will be implemented effective immediately.

The motion passed with only three people voting against, out of more than 40 governors who were eligible to vote. Immediately after its passing, student protestors who had gathered outside began shouting their dissent.

The policy allows the university to place students on a nonpunitive, but mandatory, leave of absence from U of T if their mental health either poses a risk of harm to themselves or others, or if it negatively impacts their studies.

For the latter, the policy states that “this scenario is not intended to apply to situations where a Student is academically unsuccessful,” but to instances when a student is unable “to fulfill the essential activities required to pursue their program.”

Professor Cheryl Regehr, U of T Vice-President and Provost, defended the updated policy and the consultation process, saying that she has spoken with “students who have wished there had been a policy like this in place for themselves, their friends, or their families.”

During the meeting there was also a motion to postpone discussion on the policy, to which Chair of Governing Council Claire Kennedy said that the university would drop the policy if the motion passed.

Regehr defended this decision, citing key philosophical divides and fundamental differences that “cannot be addressed through further revisions or consultations.” The motion failed with only four governors voting in favour.

Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, a student governor on Governing Council and one of the three ‘no’’ votes, told The Varsity that “this ultimatum of ‘my way or the highway’ is disappointing and not conducive to productive dialogue between students and the administration.”

“I am especially troubled by the view propagated repeatedly by some members of the administration that the disagreements between students and the administration are irreconcilable and that further consultation would be pointless,” stated Harvey-Sanchez.

Before and during the meeting, around 50 students gathered outside Governing Council’s offices at Simcoe Hall to protest the policy, carrying signs that included criticisms of the limited consultation the university undertook.

Chants, such as “Whose campus? Our campus!” or “Hey hey, ho ho, MLAP has got to go!” were audible from within the Governing Council chamber throughout the meeting.

The demonstration drew students from all three U of T campuses, as well as others from Ryerson University and York University. Nour Alideeb, Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–Ontario), was also in attendance.

Five representatives of student governments at U of T were given three minutes each to address the council: Ayaan Abdulle, Vice-President Academics and University Affairs of the SCSU; Joshua Grondin, Vice-President University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU); Jamie Kearns, Vice-President External of the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students; Andres Posada, Vice-President University Affairs of the U of T Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU); and Lynne Alexandrova, Internal Commissioner at the U of T Graduate Students’ Union.

All speakers from the five student unions shared their concerns and disapproval with the policy. Grondin alleged that the administration exhibited “tendencies to dismiss the voices of students” and portrayed protestors as “uneducated on the issues.”

Abdulle emphasized the SCSU’s concerns about cultural ignorance regarding the policy, saying that “Black and Indigenous students should be at the table.”  

U of T Ombudsperson and Professor Ellen Hodnett also spoke during the meeting: “In my view the proposed policy is long overdue.” The policy originated from her 2013–2014 report, recommending increased mental health services for students.

After the vote, Anne Boucher, President of the UTSU, said that although the UTSU had been opposed to the policy, they will “work with the university” to address student concerns.

“It is disappointing to see that consultations weren’t fully considered,” said Boucher. She considers the policy as “an improvement from what we have with the [Code of Student Conduct.]”

Prior to this policy’s passing, the U of T Code of Student Conduct already put students on a punitive leave from school if they broke the code. The mandated leave of absence policy will put students on a nonpunitive leave.

“It’s very frustrating, extremely upsetting, and I’m really, really angry right now,” said Felipe Nagata, President of the UTMSU. He added that he hopes to “fight for an updated policy that can actually protect students instead of a policy that just has vagueness and harms our autonomy.”

Speaking to The Varsity, Alideeb took issue with the consultation process, criticizing its lack of engagement with the student body and neglect of students’ schedules. She also added that CFS–Ontario would continue “supporting student groups on campus to continue this work on the ground.”

In a written statement to The Varsity, Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost Students, said that the university was aware that there are people who are “deeply opposed” to the policy and others, such as the ombudsperson, who are “strongly supportive of this approach, motivated by their overriding concern for the wellbeing of our students.”

“We will to continue to meet with students to talk about the policy, work together on this issue and make sure we can do everything we can to support students who are going through a serious health or mental health issue,” added Welsh.

According to the 2018–2019 operating budget, accessibility advisors “will provide services on location within academic divisions on the St. George campus.” The $1.5 million allocations make up approximately 0.06 per cent of the university’s $2.68 billion budget.

Op-ed: In support of the mandated leave of absence policy

The proposed policy is a significant improvement over the status quo under the Code of Student Conduct

Op-ed: In support of the mandated leave of absence policy

Over the past year, the University of Toronto’s proposed mandated leave of absence policy has been met with widespread student opposition. The proposed policy outlines a new process which would enable the university to remove students from their studies if, as a result of serious mental health issues, they pose a serious risk of harm to themselves or others, or are “unable to engage in the essential activities required to pursue an education at the University.” It was originally proposed for approval in January, but was withdrawn at the request of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Now, an amended policy is back, and every representative student government has released a letter urging Governing Council and its committees to stop or delay its approval. Despite strong opposition from student politicians, the policy flew through its governance process with few opposing votes. In all likelihood, Governing Council will approve and implement the policy at its next meeting on June 27. And that is a step in the right direction.

To clarify a common misunderstanding, the ability for the university to remove students with serious and debilitating mental health issues from school is not new. It existed prior to this proposal, and will continue to exist even if the proposal is voted down.

Currently, the university uses the existing Code of Student Conduct — which is a disciplinary policy — to suspend students who, as a result of serious mental health issues, can no longer continue with their studies. The proposed policy doesn’t seek to give the university a new right to remove students from school; it seeks to redefine the scope and process of its existing ability to do so.

To get to the heart of the debate, we should ask ourselves whether students affected by mental illness are always and without exception able to make the decisions that are best for them — especially with regard to continuing their studies. This question is similar to one that medical professionals face regularly.

It is clear that so long as patients are competent and well-informed about their options, they should be able to make their own decisions regarding medical treatment, even if they make inadvisable decisions that have negative or fatal impacts on their own health.

However, as soon as a patient loses their ability to make decisions that are both competent and well-informed, there is an onus on the doctor to prescribe care even if it is against the wishes of the patient, while also working to return the patient to a state where they can make their own decisions. A patient should only be free to make bad decisions if they can reasonably be said to understand the consequences of those decisions.

The same principle applies to students. There are situations in which students suffering from severe mental health issues should be involuntarily removed from their studies. The threshold for this should be if one or both of two scenarios occur. The first is when a student, as a result of mental illness, presents a credible risk of harm to themselves or others. The second is when a student, as a result of mental illness, is not able to function academically.

Crucially, the second scenario entails academic non-performance, not merely academic underperformance. The overwhelming majority of students with mental health issues are at least somewhat able to function in school. They are functional enough to understand the consequences of their decisions, and so should be free to make bad ones, even if the result is academic failure. The second threshold, which aligns with the policy’s “Scenario 2,” applies only to the tiny handful of students who are no longer able to function academically at all.

The alternative to reasonable limits on autonomy is to insist that students always know what is best for them, no matter how ill they may be. Imagine a scenario in which a student with a severe mental health issue is failing all their courses, but is so ill that they genuinely do not believe themselves to be failing. The university can either temporarily remove this student from their studies or allow the student to fail out of school.

Respecting autonomy means respecting choices and the capacity to make choices. Can we really say that a student in that scenario chose to fail out? Did they understand what would follow from their decisions? The answer is clearly not. A blanket refusal to intervene does nothing to preserve student autonomy. Instead, it ensures the survival of the fittest.

The existing Code of Student Conduct was never designed to address concerns stemming from medical issues. The policy’s purpose is to set out a list of the rights and responsibilities of students and to protect community members who may have had those rights violated. Students found in violation of the Code of Student Conduct can receive sanctions under the code. These sanctions are all disciplinary, ranging from monetary fines to mandatory public service to suspension and expulsion.

Students facing discipline under the Code of Student Conduct are removed from the university community — with no access to university services — and end up with a disciplinary record. A suspension under the Code of Student Conduct can also endanger a student’s immigration status, as being put on a disciplinary leave can jeopardize a student visa. It can also mean losing access to funding from the Ontario Student Assistance Program.

Students in a severe mental health crisis shouldn’t receive disciplinary sanctions, but there are still situations under which they may have to be removed from their studies. Under the proposed policy, there is a process of support in place before and after a student is put on a leave. The process ensures that any sanctions are non-disciplinary, meaning they’ll have minimal harm to the student’s transcript and future academic prospects.

The university has three options for moving forward: it can allow for complete autonomy for individuals with mental health issues and never step forward to prevent harm; it can continue enforcing sanctions for ill students under the Code of Student Conduct; or it can approve and use the mandated leave of absence policy and have the tools it needs to help students. It is clear that approving the policy is the only viable option.

This isn’t to say the policy is perfect. The language of “Scenario 2” remains broader than necessary: the input of a medical professional should be mandatory, the appeals deadline should be longer, and the process for returning from a leave should be easier.

Still, the policy is a clear improvement over the status quo, and addresses many of the problems that exist under the Code of Student Conduct. An involuntary leave of absence will not come with a disciplinary record, and there will at least be the possibility of continued access to university services. These are welcome changes.

We have no reason to believe that the administration is keen to purge the university of students with mental health issues. We have no reason to believe that the new policy will be used on a scale larger than current practice.

Moreover, the University Affairs Board will review the policy as it is implemented. The policy will help students in ways that far outweigh the potential harms.

The longer we go without the proposed policy, the more students will face unfair sanctions under the existing policy. We cannot afford to give a dogmatic, poorly conceived interpretation of autonomy priority over the immediate well-being of students.

Governing Council will consider the revised policy for final approval on June 27.

Daman Singh is a fifth-year Political Science and Philosophy student at University College. He was the 2017–2018 Vice-President Internal of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

The mandated leave of absence policy will not improve our mental health

Lack of professional medical consultation, proposed isolation from campus life, and bureaucratic process render the proposed policy detrimental to students

The mandated leave of absence policy will not improve our mental health

Eleven Canadians commit suicide every single day. Of Canadians above the age of 15 who seek out mental health services, one third report that their needs are not met by the support provided to them.

U of T is currently developing a university-mandated leave of absence policy, which the university accredits as a mental health initiative. However, the current state of the policy remains inefficient and ambiguous, while overlooking the best interests of students struggling with mental health issues. If U of T moves forward with this policy, it should not claim that the policy is aiding mental health on campus.

The policy has received a lot of criticism, including a letter from the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Even in its current revised state, the proposed policy does not mandate that a medical professional play an active role in this process.

Section I, subsection c of the proposed policy lays out the threshold for which the Division Head of the student’s faculty may invoke the leave upon a student. Research has shown that patients suffering with mental illnesses often require collaboration between psychologists, psychiatrists, and family physicians in order to sustain the highest standard of living with their condition. A Division Head alone cannot truly understand the complexity of any student’s mental health condition, but this policy could be invoked without the Division Head ever consulting a medical professional.

Under section IV, subsection g of the policy, not only can the administration repeal the student’s access to campus health and wellness resources, but they can also prohibit the student’s participation in campus life, including “co-curricular and student life activities.”

Psychiatrist Victor Schwartz of the New York University School of Medicine says that students who remain enrolled in their university show lower suicide rates when compared to those who unenrolled and, subsequently, faced a decrease in socialization. Similarly, psychiatrist Paul Appelbaum of Columbia University advises that helping at-risk-students involves connecting them to an appropriate treatment, rather than isolating them from campus life. U of T’s policy grants the university the power to prohibit students from receiving proper care.

Mental illnesses can fluctuate in severity and grow exponentially. This policy is a bureaucratic process burdened by a punitive tone, which will not help a student in a mental health crisis. The policy’s elaborate implementation will increase the student’s stress from having to fight for their right to remain on campus. This stress will come from an increase in meetings, appointments, and paperwork, when the student’s limited time and dwindling energy should be channeled into recovering or stabilizing.

Furthermore, implementing this policy might evoke fear in more students and hinder their desire to reach out for support. The policy’s reprimanding components only feed into stigmas surrounding mental illnesses. U of T can justly reprimand students for not achieving their academic standards, but it should not remove a student drowning in a mental illness because of the restrictions their condition imposes.

This policy mistakes mental exhaustion with mental illness, but the two are not synonymous. Mental exhaustion might be remedied with a break, but mental illnesses require a multitude of resources that U of T already offers to its students and faculty. The university should focus on allocating these resources more appropriately.

Governing Council will consider the revised policy for final approval on June 27.

Katy Czajkowski is a fourth-year Book and Media Studies student at New College.

Mentally ill students should not be forced out of school

The proposed university-mandated leave of absence policy reflects disregard for student input, fairness, and mental health resources

Mentally ill students should not be forced out of school

On May 24, the University Affairs Board (UAB) demonstrated its neglect for student input, human rights, and improving resources and care for students with mental health issues. It voted in favour of the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy, recommending it to Governing Council.

The UAB’s disregard for student input is evident, as the only three board members to vote against the policy were all students. Student unions came out in droves to condemn or criticize the policy before the vote: the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, the University College Literary & Athletic Society, the University of Toronto Students’ Union, and the Arts and Science Students’ Union, just to name a few.

Recent criticisms have stemmed from the manner in which the UAB went about the vote for this policy: providing little time for student input, ignoring the recommendations and requests of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and promising to alter the policy while making few changes to its practical effects. Those effects are the crux of the problem — the danger of the policy in and of itself.

Certainly, if a student wants to take a leave of absence for their mental health, they absolutely should be able to, and should receive support from the university. But that is not what we are talking about. Indeed, the policy itself clearly states: “This is not a Policy a student can choose to invoke. The application of the Policy is at the discretion of the University.”

To force students to take an absence is nothing short of discriminatory and punitive. It is difficult to imagine that a student with an observable or less-stigmatized physical illness would be forced to take leave without their consent.

Additionally, it is patently unfair for the university to force students with mental illness on leave without first offering them access to adequate treatment. The framework for support for students with mental illness on campus is totally lacking. Wait times for doctors, of which there are far too few, are ridiculously long.

Some anecdotal reports from students suggest that getting help at the Health & Wellness Centres require a student to essentially be in crisis. Rather than wait until the last second to help students, or force them to take leave, we should actually care for students with mental illness.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the proposed policy, if approved by Governing Council, will be nothing short of a total disaster for some of the university’s most vulnerable students. Yet, the UAB is so intent on pursuing it that it has actively ignored student voices and other concerned parties in order to recklessly push it through. We can only hope that Simcoe Hall decides to try to help keep students with mental illnesses in, instead of pushing them out.

Governing Council will consider the revised policy for final approval on June 27.

Adina Heisler is a fourth-year Women and Gender Studies and English student at University College.