Mindfest

An annual mental health fair, Mindfest raises awareness and battles stigma by encouraging discussions about mental illness. This year’s event focuses on mental health for students and young people. Speakers will include mental health experts, peer mentors, and individuals with lived experience. Workshops will offer attendees opportunities to engage in self-care activities such as yoga and guided meditation. Our exhibitor fair gives attendees an opportunity to explore the support and advocacy organizations that exist on and off campus.

Free event, no registration is necessary.

A free pizza lunch will be provided for attendees.

Location:

Hart House

7 Hart House Cir

Date and Time:

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

9:30 AM – 4:30 PM

Website:

www.mindfest.ca

U of T to redesign mental health services following task force’s report

Administration accepts all recommendations from student mental health task force

U of T to redesign mental health services following task force’s report

Content warning: article contains mentions of suicide.

Following a months-long consultation process with the U of T community, the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health submitted its final report on January 15. The report includes recommendations to redesign U of T’s mental health services, as well as a new partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Background

Following multiple apparent student suicides at UTSG and an incident where Campus Police handcuffed a student in a mental health crisis, student activists have been pushing the university to overhaul its mental health services. As early as March of last year, student groups such as How Many Lives and the Mental Health Policy Council were formed, and together with multiple student organizations, politicians, and faculty, called on the university to address what seemed to be a system ill-equipped to handle an overflow of students seeking health services.

While the university formed a mental health task force after a second apparent suicide in March at the Bahen Centre for Information and Technology, it was only after a third apparent suicide in September that the school placed physical barriers in the building. The mental health task force was the centrepiece of the university’s response to what had become a mental health crisis on campus.

The administration’s response

In the Draft Summary of Themes, which the task force released in November, there were concerns regarding the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP).

Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr explained in an interview with The Varsity that the UMLAP is being kept as a policy, but that efforts will be made to educate the U of T community “so that students don’t see it as a barrier to seeking help.”

Regehr continued to say that the policy is used in rare cases involving safety concerns and “provides a way of us being able to address those concerns without having to use punitive measures.”

As far as the redesign of the current mental health services at U of T, Regehr emphasized that U of T already has “excellent” programs in place and that the redesign will be focused on “streamlining access” to services. This will be done with the assistance of CAMH, one of U of T’s several medical institution partners.

The redesign has no specific timeline — “we are addressing issues as fast as we are able to,” said Regehr. In the planning stages is the launch of a single website for mental health services across all three campuses, as well as an online booking system for counselling sessions.

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union President, Chemi Lhamo, expressed concerns in an earlier interview about how the task force would adjust to the nuances that UTSC has as a satellite campus. In response to this, Regehr said that while coordination of services will take place on one system across three campuses, there will be “local delivery” of services that can differ from one campus to another.

The task force’s final report also includes a section on financial resources, and states that mental health and wellness will be a priority for the university in the 2020–2021 budget. The university’s 2019–2020 budget had $17 million available for allocation.

The report also stresses that U of T will continue advocating for more support from the government toward mental health resources. “We continue to have good conversations with government, and we continue to be really hopeful that they will be investing resources into this critically important area,” said Regehr.

When asked if the professional development opportunities on student mental health that the report promises to provide faculty and staff would include Campus Police, considering the incident in 2019 where a student was handcuffed after seeking mental health services, Regehr responded: “Absolutely.”

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.

The ABCs of mental resilience

Sports and clinical psychology research offer insights for mental health

The ABCs of mental resilience

Content warning: discussions of suicide

What is the value of addressing social connectedness as a factor of mental health? To Michael Wager, it may be one of the best tools that students can use especially as the university battles a mental health crisis on campus.

Wager, a performance coach for athletes who works at the U of T-affiliated Toronto Western Hospital, spoke with The Varsity to share his experiences of mental health and discuss promising approaches to addressing the causes of mental health concerns.

The ABC model of mental health

An influential model in psychiatry is the biopsychosocial approach, which posits that biological, psychological, and social factors each influence resiliency — defined as one’s ability to adapt to stress and adversity.

To make the model more accessible to a general audience, Wager reframed it as the ABCs model of resiliency: attitude, biology, and community.

Psychological attitude refers to one’s outlook on the world, which includes whether you see the world through a positive lens and have an optimistic attitude. This represents the psychological factors of resilience. “If you can find a way to have a positive attitude, you can be more resilient,” said Wager.

A shift in psychological outlook could stem from psychotherapy, which comprises treatments for mental health conditions by talking with a mental health provider. It could also come from coaching, especially in the context of competitive sports, which could shift athletes’ mindsets.

“The ‘B,’ biology, is how can you hack your own biology to be more resilient,” said Wager. This corresponds to the biological factors of resilience, which suggests that biological abnormalities may be a cause of mental health conditions.

Prescription medication, such as antidepressants, could be a treatment option, along with medical procedures, including deep brain stimulation for severe cases. However, Wager noted that neurological changes can also take place due to physical exercise, as well as improving one’s nutrition by eating healthier food.

But the ‘C,’ community, could be the most important piece of the puzzle of resilience, noted Wager. Which corresponds to the social factors of the biopsychosocial model.

“There’s research out there that shows the more connected one is to their community, the better off they’re going to be in their own mental health journeys,” noted Wager. Joining a club, a sports team, or volunteering could be ways for students to find a community.

One major criticism of the biopsychosocial approach is that the boundaries of biological, psychological, and social factors are ill-defined: for example, it’s unclear whether a psychological factor can be a biological factor as well. However, this may be less important in the context of treatment.

“If you’re not sure where to start, just pick something, anything, that will help you make gains in one of those three areas,” said Wager.

Applying the model in his own life

Wager himself has grappled with mental health challenges and used the ABCs to address them.

“In university, I had a really tough time; I was depressed,” he said. “I failed my first year, got myself back together, worked in the restaurant industry for a couple of years, became a little more stable, and then finished a bachelor’s degree.”

He has further experienced depression following the loss of a friend due to suicide. “It made me more depressed, but it also made me more motivated to really try and make a contribution to this world and [raise awareness about mental health].”

Wager uses journalling to change his own psychology. “I have a great little journal that my friend made me, it’s tiny so I can carry it wherever I go,” he said. “So I will start my day by writing out 10 things I’m grateful for.”

To address his biology, Wager practices yoga, which has been linked to neurobiological changes that could help patients with depression. He has also spoken with a psychiatrist, who has prescribed him with medication to improve his mental health.

Finally, to broaden his community, he joined a volleyball team. “When I first moved here [to Toronto], I barely knew anyone,” he said. The team sport enabled him to have fun and get to know people he enjoyed spending time with.

“It’s so important if you’re going to perform in sports or in school or in life, you’ve got to have people in your corner,” he said, reflecting on the importance of social factors. “Whether you’re an athlete or not, you’ve got to have people in your corner, and that’s what I want to share.”


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.

The dangers facing workers who handle your electronic waste

Personal responsibility can neutralize workers' physical and mental health risks

The dangers facing workers who handle your electronic waste

Electronics have become an integral part of our lives — the constant presence of screens has become an indicator of humanity’s absolute dependence on technology. However, the short shelf-lives of our gadgets create a vicious use-and-replace cycle, which requires processing by human workers.

Dr. Victoria Arrandale spoke to The Varsity about the hazards facing workers who handle electronic waste. Through her work as a professor at the Occupational and Environmental Health Division of U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, she recently published a paper on the subject.

Arrandale co-authored the invited review with the aim of assessing some of the risks associated with electronic waste recycling and the exposure to hazardous chemicals that e-waste workers face. She worked together with Dr. Joe Okeme, a research associate at the Occupational Cancer Research Centre at Cancer Care Ontario.

“E-waste workers are exposed to a variety of chemicals including metals, particulates, persistent organic compounds, and flame retardants. Exposure varies according to job task with higher exposures observed for dismantling and burning e-waste,” wrote the co-authors. 

Little information exists on the health consequences of handling e-waste

The literature to date has looked at the different kinds of exposure that e-workers face, according to Arrandale. However, there is little information on the health effects that these labourers incur, even though scientists know that some of these exposures are extremely hazardous.

In their review, Arrandale and Okeme summarized the conclusions of existing research on the various exposures that e-waste workers face, along with associated health risks that researchers have assessed on a qualitative level.

“In the literature there really isn’t much epidemiology at all, and it’s epidemiology that tells us about the magnitude of the risk among these workers,” mentioned Arrandale. 

“So, we can estimate… that these exposures are hazardous and are likely to lead to some health effects,” she continued. “But we can’t currently really quantify that risk.” 

Researchers relied on biological measures more often than measuring external exposure, according to the co-authors. To better protect workers, they noted that additional efforts are required to better understand these exposures and their effects on health.

The paper found that the removal of hazardous materials from electronics, together with lessened e-waste production, would benefit workers, communities, and our environment.

Psychological stresses of the work environment

Electronic waste workers also face hazards to their psychological health. In the paper, the co-authors cited two papers that explored workplace stress experienced by e-waste workers.

Some of the work is done in dangerous environments, where workers face poor working conditions or may be working for low wages, which are factors that cause occupational stress. Arrandale believes that it deserves more investigation. 

“In terms of e-scrap and waste, I think there are several levels to think about in terms of how we reduce the risk to workers,” Arrandale continued. She believes that it starts with personal responsibility, where we carefully consider which electronics we purchase and how quickly we replace them.

“The more electronics we use, the more waste we’re creating,” she noted.

Arrandale also thinks that there’s another angle that lays some responsibility for electronics manufacturers. Regulators may be able to ensure that producers both minimize the harmful chemicals contained within their electronics and plan for what happens to their products at their end of life.

“We as an occupational health and safety system need to engage more with key workplaces to improve things like ventilation,” Arrandale said, “or implement programs that will reduce exposure for workers and maybe even provide personal protective equipment.”

Ultimately, while Arrandale and Okeme’s review will better inform scientists and researchers, she hopes that it could also impact company workspaces. Another high-impact area, she noted, has been workspace research, which has involved direct consultation between her research team and companies.

Expertise drawn from this type of research can guide workplaces to resources that will help them improve their workers’ health and safety. 

Movember may be ‘mo more,’ but the conversation is not

U of T students, Professor Charlie Keil talk Movember and men’s health

Movember may be ‘mo more,’ but the conversation is not

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

After a month of moustache-growing to raise awareness for men’s health, ‘Movember’ has come to an end. What started in Australia in 2003 as a charity campaign, Movember has since expanded internationally with a larger focus on prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and mental health and suicide prevention. 

Movember aims to destigmatize the conversations surrounding men’s health. It’s simple to participate in the movement: just grow a ‘mo’ — a moustache. 

University of Toronto faculty and students shared their experiences with the movement and their stories of personal purpose and growth — all while showing off their top-notch moustaches that have grown alongside them.

Maximilian Casuba

Maximilian Casuba is a U of T student studying political science and history. He hopes to go to law school after graduating, but is keeping his options open.
DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

The beard and moustache have been part of Maximillian Casuba’s regular look since he was in ninth grade, so it’s nothing new. Casuba’s Movember routine consists of a little bit of shampoo when he showers, or just a splash of water. He shaves off his neckbeard and trims his facial hair as needed. 

However, his experience with Movember goes beyond just participating in the movement. Casuba lost his father to liver cancer last year, and dedicates his mo to his father every year. Last Movember, Casuba let his beard grow freely to commemorate the passing of his father, who first taught him to shave his peach-fuzz in seventh grade.

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Casuba expressed that although dedicating a month to raise awareness on men’s health is great, he wants to remind us that cancer is a year-round problem. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, cancer is the number one leading cause of death in Canada.

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

“Cancer should be acknowledged year round,” Casuba said. “I think it’s nice to hear that there’s this one month dedicated to it too, especially November because it’s bloody cold outside. We have this little scarf,” he explains while pointing at his beard.

Mado Ghazal 

Mado Ghazal is a Rotman Commerce student. Ghazal shares his experience growing up in Lebanon, Dubai, and Toronto, all of which shaped his understanding and meaning of men’s health and masculinity.
DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Mado Ghazal’s moustache routine is easy. He conditions and brushes it with a special moustache brush. Facial hair is nothing new to him, but the length is. 

Ghazal has a personal connection to Movember, as his grandfather was a victim of prostate cancer. However, the month also means more to him beyond prostate cancer: Ghazal wanted to emphasize that it is also dedicated to raising awareness around mental health — a commonly overlooked problem amongst men

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the suicide rate among men is three times higher than women. That being said, it does not mean that other individuals are not prone to experiencing similar struggles with their mental health. 

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Ghazal believes that a contributing factor to the statistic is the ‘male archetype’ that men have to uphold. Growing up, Ghazal felt pressured to obtain the ‘typical’ muscular male body. “I was super skinny and I went through a lot of mental hurdles to actually look in the mirror to say this is okay,” he shared. 

“I’m not at where I want to be right now, and this is fine.” 

“There’s a lot of… physical standards that men are held up to that affect them,” he continued. “Body image issues, [they’re] not just something that’s faced by women; [they’re] something faced by everybody.”

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

In addition to aesthetics, he discussed the social status that men are expected to achieve in Dubai, where he used to live: the “stereotypical ‘breadwinner’ social norm for men,” where all men are expected to work. If he isn’t working, then “it’s considered weird in the society [that Ghazal] grew up in.” 

He believes that one of the important conversations we should have is men’s health and masculinity. He noted, however, that this is not a matter of men’s health being “more important,” but rather working together with other societal issues to come up with better solutions through open-minded conversations.

Professor Charlie Keil 

Charlie Keil is a professor at the Department of History and Cinema Studies Institute, and he has been the Principal of Innis College for five years. DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Professor Charlie Keil usually keeps a clean-shaven face, so the moustache is quite foreign to him in November. Although he’s not fond of it, he knows that it is for a good cause. His care routine is quite simple: he doesn’t have one. Keil reminds himself that the mo is not necessarily meant to be aesthetically pleasing. 

Keil has been participating in Movember for a couple of years now. Since he is currently teaching a larger full-year course, he decided to take the opportunity to raise awareness and money through his students. 

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

The professor has been highlighting to his students that Movember is a time to raise awareness about mental health. Keil, although he is no expert, mentioned that there are barriers to men seeking help for mental health because of the social norms of masculinity. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) published a podcast explaining that a correlation exists between ideas of masculinity and the likelihood of men reaching out for support. Although masculinity norms are relative to different cultures, societies, and situations, some norms expect men to restrain from expressing their emotions, which in turn prevents them from seeking help. 

The APA recently released a new set of guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. Although males “tend to hold privilege and power based on gender, they also demonstrate disproportionate rates” of issues, ranging in areas such as mental and physical health problems.

Through Movember, Keil hopes to liven this conversation among his students because he believes that everyone can play a part in the discussion on mental health. “The university has the greatest responsibility, because it’s the custodian of the students who are here, and the well-being of students is the university’s top priority,” Keil said. “But I think we all need to… [help] to ensure that the mental health of all the students is as well maintained as it can be.” 

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Professors need to be aware of their actions, and administrators need to make their best efforts, but Keil also emphasized that students need to play a part as well. He believes that “we all need to be cognisant” students need to be aware of their own mental health as well as that of their peers. 

He continued on to explain that sometimes reaching out will have a positive effect “because part of [the problem] is isolation and not feeling connected.”

“If this can do a little bit toward helping raise that issue with students, then it’s totally worth the 30 days of bristliness,” he concluded, pointing at his moustache. 

Andrew Paul Raya 

Andrew Paul Raya graduated from U of T, where he specialized in psychology. Raya is currently taking non-degree courses related to social work and sexual diversity studies at the University of Toronto and York University. Raya is genderqueer, and prefers he and him or they and them pronouns. DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

While facial hair is widely associated with masculinity relative to cisgender men, Andrew Paul Raya does not see his facial hair as a representation of his gender identity. However, for November, he believes that the moustache is important to help raise awareness.

Raya has been participating in Movember since he was a teenager, when he would grow a goatee every year. Raya’s routine is simple but comes with challenges due to his sensitive skin. Aside from a little bit of hot water on the areas where he is going to shave, Raya uses nothing else to maintain his Movember look.

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Raya is currently the president of the St. Michael’s College LGBTQ+ group, which he founded with his fellow executives. He is also involved in a male-identifying ally work group at York University, which focuses on challenging “toxic masculinity,” the behaviour expected by males where they appear strong and expressionless. Through this work, he is trying to destigmatize gender stereotypes and emphasized that masculinity does not always have to be ‘toxic.’

On the topic of masculinity, Raya expressed that when he was using only he and him pronouns, he found that being masculine meant being strong, showing little emotion, and engaging in sports. Raya noted, however, that these are traits that “don’t exactly define a gender.”

Today, Raya believes that masculinity is defined by what someone believes it to mean. “If you feel comfortable calling yourself masculine, [then] that’s what really matters at the end of the day,” he said.

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

In addition to challenging gender stereotypes, Raya also hopes that through his moustache, he can remind people that cisgender men are not the only ones affected by the illnesses that Movember brings awareness to, such as prostate and testicular cancer. “There are individuals who don’t use he and him pronouns but are also affected.” he said. “Men alone don’t have moustaches.” 

“Cancer doesn’t have a face, it doesn’t have a gender,” he continued. Movember, to Raya, is also a time to remind people that there are individuals — regardless of their identity or gender — that are being affected by cancer.

“Movember is a cause,” he said, “not just an image.” 


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.

U of T professors, faculty sign open letter calling for written apology on UTM handcuffing

Letter calls for immediate end to handcuffing practice, repeals of mandated leave policy

U of T professors, faculty sign open letter calling for  written apology on UTM handcuffing

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

An open letter drafted by Beverly Bain, a lecturer at the Women & Gender Studies Institute at UTM, and Vannina Sztainbok, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Justice Education, was sent to multiple university administrators on Tuesday. The letter, which was signed by over 130 professors, faculty members, and students, calls on the university to issue a written apology to Natalia Espinosa, the UTM student who was handcuffed by campus police earlier this semester.

Background

On October 2, Espinosa, a third-year student, sought help at the Health & Counselling Centre (HCC) for suicidal ideation. She was accompanied by her friend and fellow U of T student, Anita Mozaffari, who had been the one to urge Espinosa to seek support. After drafting a safety plan with a nurse — which involved Espinosa staying the night with Mozaffari — the nurse informed Espinosa that, per U of T protocol, campus police would have to speak with her for 10–15 minutes before she could leave.

During her talk with two campus police constables, Espinosa revealed that she had previously intended to die by suicide and that a specific location was involved in her plan. The officers then told her that they would have to transport her to a hospital because her plan included a real location.

Although Espinosa was willing to go to a hospital with them, the two officers maintained that they needed to handcuff her, which caused Espinosa to suffer a number of panic attacks in the ensuing hours.

When this incident initially came to light, a number of U of T campus groups released statements condemning the actions of campus police and called on the university to amend its policies. Vice-Provost, Students Sandy Welsh also fielded a number of questions on the matter during a University Affairs Board meeting on November 13.

A university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Varsity that although U of T’s existing policies are in line with local law enforcement, “U of T is reviewing its police practices in this respect.”

Open letter

The document, entitled, “Open Letter Calling For End To Handcuffing Of Students,” amassed over 130 signatures from U of T community members in the five days between November 21, when the letter began circulating, and November 26. At that time, it was sent to U of T President Meric Gertler, Acting Vice-President and Principal at UTM Ian Orchard, and Vice-Principal, Academic and Dean of UTM Amrita Daniere.

The open letter, which was created and mainly signed by U of T professors and faculty members, cites their concerns with referring their students to U of T’s mental health services in light of this incident.

The letter reads: “As faculty and staff, we are trained to refer students to services, including the HCCs. Now, we have to seriously consider whether such a referral could lead to further harm. This leaves us, but more importantly students, bereft of options.”

The main demands include a written apology for Espinosa and compensation sent to her “for the trauma she experienced.” A number of policy changes were also proposed, such as excluding campus police from mental health situations by halting the practice of arresting and handcuffing students — instead, using other means to transport students to hospitals.

It also suggested ending the practice of encouraging invigilators to involve law enforcement when dealing with “difficult” students, repealing the university-mandated leave of absence policy, and hiring mental health professionals who are experienced in providing support to marginalized people. Finally, the authors suggested including student consultation throughout the reform process.

The authors of this letter are concerned with how issues of mental health are particularly pressing for those at an ‘intersection.’ They note that “Black students and students of colour who are female on all three of our campuses” are especially vulnerable in seeking mental health support.

When asked about the open letter, a U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity, stating “We have received the letter and will respond directly to the faculty members who have raised concerns.”

In conversation with Beverly Bain

Bain, one of the principal authors of the open letter, sat down with The Varsity to talk about her motivations behind advocating for Espinosa and for better mental health support at U of T.

Mozaffari, Espinosa’s friend who accompanied her that day to the HCC, is one of Bain’s students. When the handcuffing incident initially happened, both went to her for guidance. Since then, as this event has become more well-known, a number of other students have talked to Bain about experiences similar to Espinosa’s.

“This is not an isolated event,” said Bain, claiming that she is aware of five other similar incidents, with three students having already spoken to her about their experience.

She disagrees with the rationale behind U of T’s policy to handcuff students transported to hospitals. Mark Overton, Dean of Student Affairs at UTM, explained to The Varsity that these measures are in place to protect the safety of all those involved, both the student and the officer.

“If anything, [handcuffing students] heightens their anxiety, because it criminalizes them,” Bain said. She went on to add that “these students are not violent, there’s nothing to de-escalate. What creates escalation is putting them in handcuffs because then they panic and then they get upset.”

Bain hopes to see trained mental health professionals dealing with these issues, rather than campus police.

“In the case of [Espinosa], and all of the other cases, these students said to me that the campus police, they were really cruel. They were not at all supportive, they were not kind.”

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.

Opinion: U of T must make greater efforts to allow students to form natural support systems

The importance of community support in addressing student mental health concerns

Opinion: U of T must make greater efforts to  allow students to form natural support systems

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

Enrolling in a university program is a time of great expectation and excitement. Yet, for some, attending university may also present overwhelming challenges. Students often experience stress surrounding difficulties adjusting to a new culture and environment, establishing friendships, worries about student loan debt, and concerns about academic performance.

Research published by the Australian Psychological Society has also found that compared to the general population, university students experience higher levels of psychological distress, in part due to the unique stressors that they face. Consequently, the mental health and well-being of university students, and how they cope with challenges continues to be a significant concern.

Over the last two years, there have been four apparent deaths by suicide at U of T, with the most recent incident occurring on September 27 at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. Many more University of Toronto students continue to experience feelings of sadness, exhaustion, and loneliness.

These tragedies, as well as the feelings of despair, highlight ongoing unresolved issues pertaining to student well-being, prompting serious conversation about the role of postsecondary institutions in creating supportive environments and developing effective strategies to address student mental health concerns.

Calls for additional mental health services and support on campus

In the wake of these unfortunate events, public outcry has drawn attention to what is perceived to be a lack of resources and support systems to effectively address the mental health needs of students enrolled at the institution. In a recent interview conducted by CBC, both students and administration at U of T expressed an urgent need for officials to tackle the mental health crisis by enhancing the availability of and accessibility to mental health services on campus.

Additionally, student-led organizations have specifically called for increases in funding for additional mental health services and staff, an increase of hours of operation for campus clinics, and implementation of 24-hour counselling services, particularly during exam periods. In light of these concerns and lamentable occurrences, the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health was also established to consult with students and stakeholders to assess the university’s existing mental health resources, and to explore new approaches to addressing student mental health needs.

Help-seeking preferences and student mental health

While enhancing the quality and accessibility of existing services on campus and implementing additional services and support are practical solutions, this alone may not prove sufficient in addressing student mental health issues.

Research conducted by Carey Marsh and Allen Wilcoxon has found that only a small percentage of students will utilize campus-based mental health services and supports, suggesting that the majority of students are less inclined to seek these services. These findings counter popular perceptions, given that many perceive the issue to be with university services. However, one possible explanation for this apparent inconsistency may relate to help-seeking preferences among university students.

In a recent study conducted by myself and supervised by Professor Stuart Kamenetsky for UTM’s Psychology Undergraduate Honours Thesis course, an ethnically diverse sample of 167 UTM undergraduates completed a modified version of the The Canadian Community Health Survey, indicating their help-seeking preferences. Participants were recruited from PSY100 — Introductory Psychology, which is one of the largest first-year courses on campus. However, further research on the topic might be helpful to indicate whether this trend persists across other faculties and disciplines of study.

Our study revealed that the majority of students would be inclined to seek support from natural sources such as family members and friends, as opposed to formal and professional sources such as university-based mental health clinics. It is possible that students are willing to seek support from people they can confide in and express themselves to most comfortably. In most cases, friends and family members are people with whom students have developed strong bonds of trust and confidence.

Opportunities for community and support building at U of T

As our research finds, natural supports — friends, family members — are the most preferred sources of support for many, highlighting the importance of these particular types of relationships for students. For some postsecondary institutions, however, opportunities to develop these supports are often limited.

In my experience, moving to Canada as an international student, and being away from family and friends for the first time, proved challenging. Developing natural supports was difficult, and I longed for a sense of community and belonging. If I had a difficult week or was concerned about exams, an opportunity to share these concerns with a friend would have reduced my worries and feelings of isolation and anxiety.

However, opportunities for community building were challenging, and at best, minimal. In fact, one major theme that was recently identified by the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health was feelings of loneliness and isolation among students, often due to challenges finding community on campus.

My personal experience and the recent findings of the task force draw attention to the possibility of inherent deficiencies in the format and structure of University of Toronto’s programs, which seem to provide insufficient opportunities for students to develop natural supports and build community. For example, across all three campuses, core classes offered during the first year are often very large, with up to 500 students attending a single lecture in a UTM class and up to 1,500 at UTSG.

For many students, large classes prove to be overwhelming, intimidating, and impersonal, which can potentially increase feelings of isolation and loneliness on campus. Further, despite the many advantages and conveniences of technology, the online courses offered by the university may also limit opportunities for students to build these friendships. In most online courses, students typically communicate through email, social media, and discussion boards, leaving very little opportunity for in-person interaction and engagement.

Alternatively, first-year seminars have become increasingly popular at U of T for incoming students. These seminars allow students who share similar interests to engage closely with each other in a more conducive environment, enhancing opportunities for networking and support building.

Supporting student mental health through community building

Natural support systems play an important role in students’ mental health and well-being, as a vast majority indicate a preference for this type of support. Institutional efforts to support student mental health should also be geared toward creating opportunities for community and support building. These efforts may include, but not be limited to, reducing the number of online courses — particularly in the first year — and creating opportunities for greater interaction and socialization among students on campus.

Faculty and administration may also consider introducing mandatory seminars and workshops into curricula to further enhance student engagement and interaction. Additionally, community and support building on campus can be facilitated through the establishment and promotion of school-based peer-support programs, cultural and religious affinity groups, and functional extracurricular activities.

Building support for student mental health requires a comprehensive approach by institutions, one in which traditional approaches are enhanced, and new approaches — premised on the importance of natural supports in students’ lives — also form part of the new paradigm in tackling student mental health.

Furthermore, shifting the university’s present reactive and curative approach toward the adoption of a more proactive and preventative model, where support and community building are emphasized, may further improve student mental health outcomes.

Rosalia Samuel is a recent Psychology graduate from the University of Toronto Mississauga. The study, supervised by Professor Stuart Kamenetsky, was part of UTM’s Psychology Undergraduate Honours Thesis course. The course instructor was Professor Glenn Schellenberg.

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

Mixed reactions from student groups over U of T’s mental health task force

Criticisms about lack of diverse student representation

Mixed reactions from student groups over U of T’s mental health task force

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

U of T’s Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health wrapped up its months-long consultation period on November 25, leaving mixed reviews from student groups that participated. The consultations touched on numerous topics, including student representation, the academic climate at U of T, and the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP).

Background

The task force was formed on March 28 as part of President Gertler’s action plan to address student mental health and wellness, following two student deaths by suicide on campus between January and March of 2019. Throughout the summer and fall, the task force has been engaging in its outreach process to review U of T’s current services relating to mental health and potential new solutions. 

Earlier this month, the task force released a draft summary of the themes that arose during its consultations, and is scheduled to provide its recommendations to U of T in December.

In addition to reaching out to individual community members through online forms and in-person feedback sessions, the task force highlighted a number of student organizations that it would consult with. The Varsity contacted these groups to hear about their experiences.

Most interviewed student groups had positive feedback to share along with their criticisms, including feeling validated during consultations. The Innis College Student Society and the St. Michael’s College Student Union had only positive feedback to report.

Concerns about representation

The UofT Mental Health Policy Council (MHPC), a newly created mental health advocacy group on campus, wrote to The Varsity that “the Task Force’s structure and mandate make it a poor [representation] of student interests.” The MHPC also took issue with the prioritization of professional and academic experience above the lived experiences of applicants for the four student representative positions on the task force.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Vice-President, Operations, Arjun Kaul, wrote to The Varsity explaining that the union “took the time to criticize their non-student-led model” when meeting with the task force. Kaul also noted that no changes to the task force’s structure were made following the UTSU’s suggestions.

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union President Chemi Lhamo wrote that there is no representation of UTSC in the student members of the task force, even though it has its own nuances as a satellite campus. The student representatives on the task force are composed of two graduate students, an undergraduate student from UTM, and an undergraduate student from UTSG.

Of the student groups that responded to The Varsity’s request for comment, only the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union confirmed that student representatives from the task force were present at its consultation.

A spokesperson from U of T clarified that in order to ensure confidentiality and comfort of students at these consultations, Professor Bonnie Kirsh from the Department of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy, and Director of Critical Incidents, Safety, and Health Awareness for the Faculty of Arts & Science Caroline Rabbat, led the sessions. Kirsh and Rabbat then shared the feedback they received with other members of the task force.   

Harmful academic culture

Kaul believes that the draft summary of themes was “a good step,” however, he does not believe that the themes have put enough onus on U of T itself. Kaul cited the section in the themes document on culture at U of T and pointed out that the task force largely used language relating to students’ perception and beliefs about harmful academic culture.

“The reality is that there is an institutional rot at the heart of U of T’s academic system, not a simple problem with students’ perception,” wrote Kaul.

Morgan Watkins, President of the Students’ Law Society, wrote that “mental health needs should be a priority consideration in all university policy areas.” Watkins gave the example of taking a wider scope when it comes to mental wellness during exam times. That is, considering the structure of curricula from a mental health perspective could mean refraining from “automatically deferring to 100% exams” in the Faculty of Law, rather than simply providing extra resources during exam time.

Watkins asserted that this type of an approach to harmful academic culture focuses in on “structural barriers to addressing mental health & wellness on campus, rather than being reactionary.”

A U of T spokesperson noted that the draft summary of themes is still in the editing process and feedback from students will be taken into consideration.

University-mandated leave of absence policy

While Mental Wellness Commissioner on the University College Literary and Athletic Society, Aanya Bahl, did “appreciate the time… and attention to detail” in the draft summary of themes, she did not feel that students’ concerns in regard to the UMLAP were adequately presented. “[UMLAP] was only spoken about twice in the drafted list of themes… they’re not admitting that it’s the policy that needs to be changed,” Bahl told The Varsity.

One suggestion for the UMLAP that Bahl had was that the policy should enter into specifics about what supports they provide a student once they’re removed from study.

The U of T spokesperson informed The Varsity that university staff are working on an awareness campaign to counter misconceptions about the UMLAP.

Disclosure: Aanya Bahl writes for The Varsity‘s Science Section in Volume 140.

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.