Student concerns about mental health policy demand the administration’s full attention

Recent events surrounding the mandatory leave policy should spur the university to better prioritize the student voice

Student concerns about mental health policy demand the administration’s full attention

The most recent draft of the controversial University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy was withdrawn last week in what many have classified as a resounding victory for the dignity and respect of students struggling with mental health issues at U of T.

Having been in the works for the past few years, the policy allows for students struggling with mental health issues to be placed on a non-punitive leave of absence from their studies, under circumstances in which their mental health is ruled to negatively impact their studies or to present a physical threat to themselves or others. The originally proposed draft of the policy was met with widespread concern from students and campus organizations, prompting Governing Council to delay the final vote on the policy’s recommendation pending further feedback and revisions.

The status of the policy currently remains uncertain. In light of the concerns raised, the university may choose to reintroduce a revised draft in the future — and it is fortunate that being sent back to the drawing board provides optimal opportunity for reflection. When it comes to mental health on campus, the past months have demonstrated that students will not back down if they feel their needs are not being met.

University-mandated leaves of absence are currently governed using the Code of Student Conduct. It should be acknolwedged that, in contrast to the existing measures in the code, the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy is intended to be non-punitive; unlike measures adopted under the existing framework, it does not result in a punitive mark being added to a student’s record.

Nevertheless, much of the criticism of the policy has centred on its potentially discriminatory treatment of students with mental health issues. The Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) weighed in to this effect in December 2017, expressing the opinion that it does not meet the legally mandated duty to accommodate the OHRC’s Policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability and the Policy on preventing discrimination based on mental health disabilities and addiction. The university, according to the OHRC, is required to take all steps to accommodate those with disabilities “to the point of undue hardship.” Despite these concerns, the Academic Board approved the most updated draft of the policy at the end of January, prompting the OHRC to request another delay on the policy’s progression.

It is disconcerting that the OHRC’s intervention appears to be the tipping point in the university’s final decision. The OHRC’s insistence that the policy could possibly be in contravention of Ontario human rights law — and therefore a legal liability — finally incentivized the administration to reconsider. In comparison, the numerous, repeated, and profound concerns raised by students and campus organizations over the better part of this academic year apparently did not provide sufficient impetus to substantially revise the policy in a way that could meaningfully accommodate their concerns.

A profoundly inspiring grassroots movement has formed in opposition to the policy, bringing together students from across the three campuses. The St. George Round Table, representing the student heads of colleges and undergraduate faculties, sought out concerns from students to streamline the feedback process. Petitions opposing the policy were circulated by Students for Barrier-free Access and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The U of T Graduate Students’ Union Executive Committee came out against the policy, and students from iStudents for Mental Health united to present a panel discussion reviewing the tenets of the policy. Online, students gathered in a Mandatory Leave Policy Response Group to present a line-by-line breakdown of the policy and compile student criticism.

The ultimate outcome of the draft being withdrawn would not have been possible absent the hard work of these organizations and of all the individuals involved. But despite the overwhelming amount of feedback the administration has received in this regard, the amendments to the policy remained nominal. Of the 14 concerns raised by the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) with respect to the policy, only three were ultimately addressed by the time the most recent draft was completed.

Firstly, the word ‘essential’ was added to Section 1.c.21 of the policy to narrow the scope of the “activities” with which the student’s mental health condition could be ruled to interfere. Secondly, in response to a concern that the policy’s invocation would disproportionately impact international students given their enrolment-dependent immigration status, an amendment was made to provide students with access to a Student Immigration Advisor “where appropriate.” Finally, a provision was added to ensure the university’s compliance with the Personal Health Information Protection Act, which outlines the guidelines for the collection, use, and disclosure of personal health information in Ontario.

Much of the rest of the policy remains exactly the same, and numerous issues have been left unaddressed. The policy contains no explicit requirement for the involvement of medical professionals in the process and places the power to make these determinations in the hands of the Vice-Provost Students. While health professionals have the training to properly and accurately assess mental health issues and determine the extent to which students’ lives may be affected by them, the same cannot necessarily be said for members of the administration who do not receive this training.

Concern has also been raised that the vague language of the policy poses limits to student autonomy by granting overbroad powers to the administration. Students’ ability to stay in school, as well as to return to their studies if they are placed on leave, falls entirely under the discretion of the Vice-Provost Students. Any appeals must be made within 15 business days of the decision to the Discipline Appeals Board of the University Tribunal. The Senior Chair will hear and make a final decision on the appeal.

Finally, in a sad twist of irony, a policy intended to relieve mental health stressors may actually cause even greater distress by potentially forcing students in already precarious situations to take time off school. At a competitive institution like U of T, assignments can pile up after just a day of neglect, so prospects like falling behind by a semester or more, or being unable to complete one’s degree, can be harrowing. It is hardly an uncommon occurrence for mental health related stressors to interfere with students’ studies at U of T — the highly pressurized atmosphere is often considered to be a disturbingly ordinary part of the student experience.

To its credit, the administration has maintained that the policy is non-punitive and meant to be exercised in students’ best interests. Nevertheless, a number of the policy’s provisions have sparked monumental and understandable resistance from the student body, centred on fears that it will work to unduly marginalize some of the most vulnerable people on campus. If the university truly wants the policy to work for students, it is vital that it be receptive to their concerns moving forward — only then can it begin to develop a meaningful solution to addressing mental health issues on campus.

Now that the policy is once again at the drawing board, the university has the chance to issue a more meaningful response.

U of T can be a deeply isolating place, and a comprehensive approach to addressing mental health on campus is sorely needed here — such a policy has the potential to be a progressive addition if implemented in a way that is designed to serve those to whom it applies.

Fortunately, the past months have demonstrated the passion students at this institution have for supporting one another through mental health struggles. And while we hope that any future drafts of this policy will address its current flaws in a way that is more sensitive to students’ concerns, we know students will continue to push for change if these efforts fall short.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

From hindsight to insight: 2017 in review

Contributors reflect on politics, law, and human rights on campus and in the community at large

From hindsight to insight: 2017 in review

 As far as years go, 2017 was a kicker. World politics is a dumpster fire, and a deeply distracting one at that. Within this generally turbulent international political climate, everything can appear devastating, and the doom and gloom of international headlines can feel incredibly disempowering.

What is happening in the world might cause us to lose sight of the subtle but pernicious ways in which university affairs have impacted life at the University of Toronto as well. We might also forget that, as students at the largest university in Canada, we have vital bargaining power, and we shouldn’t shy away from trying to make a difference in our immediate community. While stepping into the ring with political moguls might seem like a pipe dream, students retain the power to affect change locally, at the very least.

The start of 2018 provides us with ample opportunity for reflection and analysis. I asked six Comment contributors to write about key events and phenomena that forged 2017’s trajectory, both at the university and in the world at large. Going forward, let’s remain vigilant about macro-level political affairs — but let’s also keep local issues situated in our sightline.

Happy new year. Stay political.

 

Teodora Pasca

Comment Editor

ON CAMPUS

Students voted down a motion to merge two executive positions during the UTSU AGM. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

UTSU AGM REMINDED US WHERE POWER LIES IN STUDENT GOVERNMENT

Instead of preparing their Halloween costumes, over 90 U of T students spent the evening of October 30 hotly debating motions at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the University of Torotno Students’ Union (UTSU). Taking centre stage was a motion to combine the executive positions of Vice-President External and Vice-President University Affairs into the proposed new role of Vice-President Advocacy. The motion had been passed by the UTSU Board of Directors, but it needed to be approved at the AGM to take effect for the next election cycle. While other motions in the same position passed easily, members decisively voted this one down — an important reminder of the power students can wield when they disagree with student politicians.

Those who take on roles in student government often do not seek power or pay — there are arguably easier ways to obtain both — but rather seek to contribute to their communities. Leaving aside questions about the merits of this motion, the events of the AGM showcase an idea fundamental to student government: it exists not for student politicians, but for their constituents, meaning by consequence that decision-making authority ultimately rests with the student body at large.

While true for the UTSU, this can also be said of student governments at this university that receive much less attention, from course unions to divisional student societies. A brief survey of the Canadian Studies Students’ Union, the Association of Political Science Students and the University College Literary and Athletic Society shows that their constitutions explicitly reserve for students the power to set direction and change structures by amending bylaws. While their 2017 general meetings were less controversial than that of the UTSU, the meetings still give students the opportunity to wield their power in student government.

What happened at the 2017 UTSU AGM should remind student governments, no matter their size, that they should seek to involve students as much as possible in their services and governance — or else they risk watching students vote down the fruit of their labour. Conversely, in 2018, students must seize the opportunity to use their power and engage with their representatives, demanding that their governments serve them better.

Andrew Kidd is a fourth-year student studying Engineering Physics. He is the Speaker of the Engineering Society.

Governing Council’s mandatory leave policy has faced serious criticism from students. ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY

MANDATORY LEAVE POLICY REFLECTED STATE OF MENTAL HEALTH AT THE UNIVERSITY

It was announced in 2017 that Governing Council was considering a mandatory leave policy, which would allow the university to issue a non-punitive yet compulsory leave of absence on students “whose mental health issues posed a physical threat to themselves or others, or impacted their academics negatively.” The topic of the policy proceeded to occupy much campus discourse over the course of the fall semester, and it was met with a great deal of protest from mental health and student advocacy groups. Criticisms included its vague wording and the potential effects it would have on students in situations where their enrolment would affect their financial, housing, or immigration status.

The policy is an unsurprising move from a university that has been so utterly ineffective at helping students with mental illness, often failing to provide them with badly needed support. In my own experience with the Health and Wellness Centre, the waiting list for individual therapy can be anywhere from a month to much longer. Numerous complaints have been raised by students who feel they have had their mental health concerns dismissed by the university or who have otherwise been unable to access vital services.

The policy wouldn’t apply to students with a treatment plan who are able to attend classes — yet given the state of mental health services at U of T, students cannot always expect to have access to treatment. The impact of the policy could therefore be to punish students who seek help for mental illness, preventing them from asking for help in the first place out of fear of being removed, worsening an already difficult situation. As Governing Council prepares to vote on the mandatory leave policy in 2018, I can only hope that instead of seeking to remove students whose mental health prevents them from staying in university, they will take measures to improve existing support frameworks.

Adina Heisler is a third-year student at University College studying Women and Gender Studies and English. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.

The BSA organized a town hall in November as a response to racist incidents. STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

CAMPUS DEMONSTRATIONS SHOWCASED IMPORTANCE OF THE STUDENT VOICE

Many of us in 2017 bore witness to student action and involvement in campus politics and issues regarding equity and racism. Examples of such action were demonstrated throughout the year, serving as positive encouragement for students to actively voice their concerns on the issues that matter to them — personally, campus-wide, and internationally.

One of the most significant examples of this happened during the fall of last year. A group of students walked on stage at Isabel Bader Theatre in protest of the annual Keith Davey Forum due to its lack of diversity in the speaker panel and the irresponsible way in which the discussion question — asking if social inequality was “a real problem” — was posed. This protest led to the organizers admitting there were problems with the event, going as far as to say that another forum would be held with the issues at hand resolved.

More recently, after students came forward with evidence of racist remarks made on an engineering chat forum, the Black Students’Association organized a town hall on November 28 to discuss racism and to allow students to share their experiences of racial discrimination.

These events are a testament to the impact of the student voice and how it can positively influence events and programs on campus. Demonstrations and forums revolving around campus and international affairs are a vital example of the political involvement of students at U of T, and 2017 was no exception. An active and aware student body is a testament to an environment in which students are not afraid to voice their opinions and can ultimately become a source of social change.

Abdul Ali is a first-year student at St. Michael’s College studying International Relations.

WORLD

Bill C-6 is among the most significant federal laws passed in 2017, writes Maia Harris. DAVID RUSSO/CC FLICKR

BILL C-6 SOLIDIFIED FEDERAL GOVERNMENT’S COMMITMENT TO DIVERSITY

The Liberals’ Bill C-6 received Royal Assent on June 19, 2017, a clear sign of the Canadian government’s favourable stance toward immigration. Bill C-6 issues a series of legislative amendments that facilitate easier access to Canadian citizenship, a position that stands in contrast to the political atmospheres and anti-immigration policies that characterized other countries in 2017.

Bill C-6 came into effect amidst a year of wealthy, influential nations peddling policies that make it significantly more difficult for people to immigrate to their countries. The second tier of the United Kingdom’s statement of change tightening their immigration policy was released in 2017, while the American government’s travel ban was upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional. The timing of Bill C-6 sets the stage for Canada to counter global political tides and lead as an open-door nation in 2018.

The bill repeals many of the previous Conservative government’s citizenship policies, including those implemented through Bill C-24, which allowed for increased liberty to revoke dual citizenship. Among the changes is a provision that greatly benefits international students seeking Canadian citizenship post-graduation: an applicant must only be physically present in Canada for three out of five years preceding their citizenship, which is more favourable than the previous terms mandating four out of six years of presence. Additionally, the revamped calculation method entails that time spent in Canada on a study permit will count toward the residency requirement. A temporary resident is now able to include one day present for every two days spent in Canada toward their requirement, up to a maximum of 365 days.

Bill C-6 stands among the most significant Canadian laws passed in 2017, and its effects will certainly be felt going forward. Potential outcomes include increased immigration rates as well as a possible boost of international students in Canadian schools. Overall, Bill C-6 sets Canada apart from the closed-door international agenda, and it lays the groundwork for an even more diverse nation.

Maia Harris is a first-year student at St. Michael’s College studying English and Political Science.

PM Trudeau with Catherine Porter (left) and Peter Baker (right) JACOB LORINC/THE VARSITY

WORLD POLITICS VEERED OFF THE LIBERAL-DEMOCRATIC TRACK

Last year saw the continuation of a struggle over the future of the international liberal-democratic order. Relatively uncontested until recently, this system was put into place following the Cold War, consisting of principles such as democratic values, economic liberalism, and interdependence guided by powerful supranational institutions. It was this establishment that Francis Fukuyama infamously called “the end of history” — yet in light of the events of this past year, such a thesis seems increasingly false.

US President Donald Trump, a candidate elected on an ‘America first’ platform of economic protectionism and xenophobia, was inaugurated early in the year. Some of the Trump administration’s actions in 2017 included various attempts at implementing travel bans for those coming from Muslim-majority countries, a war on “fake news,” withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and the beginning of renegotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Outside of Washington, events such as the Charlottesville rally reveal apparently anti-liberal movements on both the right and the left. On one hand, the ‘alt-right’ disavows diversity in favour of an American white ethno-state; on the other hand, leftist Antifa groups have engaged in violence and property damage at protests.

In contrast, Canada seems to be one of the states not moving in this direction. Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s suggestion that immigrants be screened for “Canadian values” was resoundingly defeated, for example. Justin Trudeau has pursued liberal policies and has been presented as a worthy opponent to Trump in the international political context.

Outside of the US, far-right parties continue to influence European politics with protectionism, xenophobia, and anti-EU positions; in 2017, this was demonstrated through several key elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, the latter of which saw the introduction of a far-right party to the German Bundestag for the first time since World War II. In light of Germany’s post-war fear of Nazism, this is particularly significant, and it foreshadows a global trend away from the liberal status quo towards new directions — a trend that Canada will need to respond to.

Sam Routley is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science, History, and Philosophy.

NATIONALISM BLED OVER THE BORDER, THREATENED HUMAN RIGHTS AT HOME

We might like to think that society has progressed in terms of civil and human rights during the 21st century, yet looking back on 2017, this seems doubtful. Women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and migrant rights have taken a hit in the US this year. Among oppressive policies, President Donald Trump said he would eliminate the diversity lottery for foreigners seeking US visas. Racism in political discourse has also been prominent — for instance, Republican state Senator John Bennett refused to apologize for his statement that American Muslims are a “cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.”

What is important to remember, however, is that racism and oppression are hardly unique to the US. On Canada Day, a white nationalist group called the Proud Boys disrupted an Indigenous ceremony in Halifax. As Indigenous folks engaged in ceremony protesting Halifax’s founder, Edward Cornwallis — infamous for collecting bounty on Indigenous scalps — the group disrupted the ceremony and approached the gathering singing “God Save the Queen.” The Québec City mosque shooting occurred on January 29, when six worshippers were killed and 19 others were injured. Both of these acts of racism can arguably be linked to the influence of the US: the headquarters of the Proud Boys is located in New York City, while the Québec City shooter was allegedly a Trump supporter.

The development of civil and human rights has rightfully come a long way since slavery and women’s suffrage. However, as incidents of racism continue, it feels as though this progress is not as steady as we might hope. As 2017 has come to a close, we as Canadians should remember that, no matter the actions of the US, we do not have to follow their example. In 2018, we should focus on confronting hatred coming from abroad while also working to address it at home.

Areej Rodrigo is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying English and Theatre and Performance Studies.