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.”
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