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Discovery of special proteins in brain opens new pathway to treating depression

From MAO-A to B, protein discoveries may lead to a new types of antidepressants

Discovery of special proteins in brain opens new pathway to treating depression

Neuroscientists at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) have found that patients with depression may have elevated levels of a particular protein in the brain, opening a pathway for developing a new type of antidepressant medication.

The research team, led by Dr. Jeffrey Meyer, the Head Scientist of the Neurochemical Imaging Program in Mood and Anxiety Disorders at CAMH, found that the MAO-B protein — short for monoamine oxidase B — was found in heightened levels in the prefrontal cortex area of the brains of depressed patients.

How Meyer’s research team first discovered the protein

The breakthrough of Meyer’s research team that led to this study was the discovery of elevated levels of the MAO-A protein in women who had recently delivered a baby.

Originally, researchers considered both MAO-A and MAO-B as the same protein, MAO, as they both break down the molecule tyrosine. However, medications developed to treat early postpartum depression – a mood disorder associated with childbirth – revealed that despite a 70 per cent overlap in the structures of the two proteins, the medications only affected the MAO-A enzyme.

Neuroscientists have therefore since considered MAO-A and MAO-B to be different types of chemicals.

The link between MAO-B levels and clinical depression

The recent study by Meyer’s research team evaluated images taken from the brains of 40 patients over a period of four years. Half of the volunteers had experienced episodes of major depression, while the remaining 20 were considered healthy controls.

Through positive emission tomography, a type of brain imaging, the researchers discovered that 50 per cent of the patients with depression had elevated levels of MAO-B compared to the healthy individuals.

The patients with depression were found to have, on average, a 26 per cent increase in the volume of MAO-B in the prefrontal cortex region compared to those without the condition. This region is primarily responsible for complex cognitive behaviour, personality regulation, decision-making, and moderating social behaviour and emotions.

The researchers also found a positive correlation between MAO-B levels and the duration of depressive episodes. That is, the longer the depressive episode, the higher the detected level of MAO-B in the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions.

While MAO-A breaks down serotonin, MAO-B promotes cell turnover by breaking down old and excess neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, chemicals that are responsible for pleasure and reward.

Although this process is essential in maintaining a healthy brain, increased levels of MAO-B can lead to removing too much of the feel-good chemicals, which may lead to depression.

The limitations of current antidepressant medications

Although there are already antidepressants in the pharmaceutical market, they mainly only target serotonin. Meyer pointed out, in an email to The Varsity, that the current medications and treatment options are not effective for everyone with depression.

“While some people respond well to SSRI [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors] medications half do not. A key problem is that there are subtypes of depression and we need to match treatments to the subtypes of depression better,” wrote Meyer.

There are already drugs on the market that inhibit MAO-B used for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The research team is looking for ways to direct them towards treating depression.

“There are medications purposed for other illness that shut down MAO-B and could be repurposed for depression,” wrote Meyer.

“With this study now in hand, published in what is traditionally the top psychiatric research journal, I am asking the companies that own the patent rights to these medications to use them for depression.”

How the discovery of MAO-B can lead to new antidepressant research

After the discovery of MAO-A, Meyer’s lab has made progress in developing a dietary supplement that would compensate for the sudden rise of MAO-A in early postpartum depression.

They are currently seeking to create a blood test that could detect monoamine type illnesses. This would help identify individuals who would respond better to MAO-targeted drugs as opposed to the usual antidepressant treatments.

“The main steps are to test medications in development and those available for use, (even if indicated for other illnesses) for their ability to shut down MAO-B. Then I would like to see if matching a medication that shuts down MAO-B to the subtype of depression with greater MAO-B would help increase the chance of cure,” wrote Meyer.

“We are also looking for low cost approaches to predict the subtype of clinical depression with the highest MAO-B level.”

Approximately 15 per cent of people are affected by depression at some point in their life and it is the main cause of disability around the  world.

Meyer wrote, “There is great reason for hope because we are increasingly understanding how the brain changes in clinical depression which is creating new opportunities for cures.”

How psychotherapy treats depression differently than antidepressants

A personal exploration into the science behind antidepressants and CBT

How psychotherapy treats depression differently than antidepressants

Content warning: discussions of depression and suicidal ideation.

The first time I walked through the door of my psychiatrist’s office, I was full of doubt. I had been feeling low for quite a while, and I had trouble believing that any treatment would truly help me feel better.

I had just completed my second year of university, and I felt broken and exhausted. A blend of burning out, experiencing depressive episodes, disengaging from pastimes I used to enjoy, and fantasizing about dying drove me to seek treatment at U of T’s Health & Wellness Centre.

As part of my initial assessment, which occurred over the course of several sessions, my psychiatrist asked me questions about practically every aspect of my life: recent events, medical history, sleep patterns, appetite, suicidal ideations, and more. After considering all my symptoms, she prescribed me Prozac, an antidepressant medication, and recommended cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Both are common treatments for depression.

I gave them both a try. I was fortunate to be able to see a therapist for CBT, which was covered by my family’s health insurance. At first, I was skeptical that it would work, but I decided to commit myself to at least a few sessions.

CBT, as I learned, is a short-term form of psychotherapy that helps people build skills for staying healthy. In essence, it helps people identify, question, and change distorted thoughts and beliefs they might have about themselves and the world. By recording their thoughts during upsetting situations, people examine how their unhelpful thoughts might contribute to problems like depression.

Research on how CBT compares to antidepressants

Dr. Zindel Segal, a U of T psychology professor and an expert in CBT, said in an interview with me that “when people are in certain mood states, they tend to have thoughts that are very compatible with those mood states. So, when someone’s feeling depressed, they’re more likely to feel hopeless, judge themselves, and be very critical.”

According to Segal, CBT provides a way of treating people’s thoughts and assumptions as hypotheses that can be tested, rather than as hard facts. “That can help people alleviate the impact that some of these thinking styles can have on their moods,” he elaborated.

For me, CBT was extremely challenging more so than any math or biochemistry course I have ever taken. Perceptions are simply hard to change. At the time, for example, I felt incredibly worthless and undeserving of love. In the face of this, CBT helped me stay objective and not always accept my perceptions as truth. Psychotherapy made me stand back from my thinking to consider situations from different viewpoints.

“In the face of [critical challenges], CBT helped me stay objective and not always take my perceptions as truth.”

However, distorted thoughts and beliefs are often not the only culprits of depression. Much is still unknown about the causes of depression, but researchers suspect that chemical imbalances in the brain play a role in maintaining low moods. Antidepressant medications are designed to address these chemical imbalances by boosting concentrations of neurotransmitters namely serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain.

At first, I was very reluctant to try antidepressant medication because I was wary of possible side-effects. However, my psychiatrist assured me that the starting dose was low, that I would be closely monitored, and that we could always adjust my treatment if the medication was not right for me. In the end, I experienced only minor side-effects and really benefited from the resulting stability in my mood.

The differences between CBT and antidepressants

So, what are the differences between CBT and antidepressants in treating depression, according to experts? Researchers like Segal, who recently co-authored a paper comparing the efficacy of CBT versus antidepressants, are working hard to answer this question.

Segal’s research team found that CBT and antidepressants target different symptoms of depression. Antidepressants were found to be best for treating symptoms specifically related to depressed mood, feelings of guilt, suicidal thoughts, and psychic anxiety.

On the contrary, CBT and antidepressants were equally effective in treating patients who struggled with other specific symptoms of depression, like changes in sleep and appetite. “This paper tries to address more of a symptom-to-patient matching approach so that people are getting antidepressants if they have a symptom profile that might be more responsive to the drug,” said Segal.

In my case, CBT and antidepressants were temporary treatments that helped me bounce back from a bout of depression and develop long-term skills in staying healthy. Each treatment helped me in different ways: CBT helped me build emotional resilience, whereas antidepressant medication gave me the extra energy to ‘get back on my feet’ and return to doing the things I love to do.

But whichever treatment people are prescribed, Segal stressed that depression is treatable. “Whether you have hypertension or depression, it is possible to get treatment.”


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.

Task Force on Student Mental Health announces members

Consultations with students, staff to begin in July

Task Force on Student Mental Health announces members

The University of Toronto has revealed the members of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health. Its establishment was announced last semester in response to growing mental health concerns on campus.

The task force was established on March 28 as one of four key elements laid out by U of T President Meric Gertler to address the problem of mental health. Since then, hundreds of nominees have come forward to serve on this task force — a committee which may have a lasting impact on how the university handles mental health issues for years to come.

Chaired by Professor Trevor Young, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, the task force is made up of four students, three faculty members, three administrative staff members, and two senior assessors. Their work begins immediately in reaching out and consulting the U of T community on how to improve student mental health and wellness.

The task force members come from a variety of different faculties and campuses, with both undergraduate and graduate students being represented. Among the members are people who have previously volunteered, researched, or worked professionally on mental health issues, with some having personally faced challenges with mental health in the past.

The students on the task force are Master of Social Work student Egag Egag from the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, Jayson Jeyakanthan from UTM, PhD candidate Corey McAuliffe from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, and Aurora Nowicki from the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

The first phase of the task force’s operations involves in-person consultations and collecting online form submissions starting in July and continuing through the fall semester. This is in accordance with the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health Outreach and Engagement Plan, which outlines the group’s proposed operations from now until November 15, 2019. This draft plan is currently under consultation and feedback can be submitted online until June 21, 2019.

The Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health is set to present their findings and recommendations to President Gertler and Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr by December 2019.


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 reckless
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swing

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 about it, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Graduate Students’ Union investigating OISE elections

Executives report on mental health advocacy, freeze honoraria in anticipation of funding cuts

Graduate Students’ Union investigating OISE elections

An investigatory committee was commissioned by the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) to evaluate the integrity of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Graduate Students’ Association (OISE GSA) elections, during a UTGSU General Council meeting on April 23.

The committee’s mandate is to assess whether the OISE GSA violated its constitution, following the alleged firing of its Chief Returning Officer (CRO), according to a GSU member at the meeting. The CRO is responsible for overseeing elections.

Five council members volunteered to join the committee, which is authorized to assess the possible constitutional violation until June 1.

According to a UTGSU representative who spoke at the meeting, the committee lacks the power to compel testimony through subpoena. However, it does have the ability to interview witnesses willing to testify, review meeting minutes of the OISE GSA, and present an assessment to the Council on whether the OISE GSA violated its constitution.

In an email to The Varsity, the OISE GSA Executive wrote that they “never had doubts about the integrity of following the elections process as outlined by [their] Constitution.”

The Executive noted that their elections had not begun by the time of the General Council meeting when these allegations of election fraud were brought forward, and that they are following regulations set by its Constitution to “re-set the Elections process.”

The UTGSU Executive Committee verified that the committee was struck before having a chance to “invite and receive a statement by the [OISE GSA] Executive and Council,” but also wrote that it believed it would be “inappropriate for the UTGSU Executive to ask the OISE GSA for a statement prior to the striking of the committee, as this would have constituted the beginning of an investigation.”

UTGSU executives also report on advocacy work towards expanding mental health services

External Commissioner Cristina Jaimungal also reported on work by the executive team on responding to U of T’s mental health crisis.

Jaimungal spoke on the launch of the first webpage specific for U of T graduate students to access mental health resources, which has received 5,000 visits so far. She also reported on the addition of a graduate-specific accessibility counselor at the School of Graduate Studies, as well as the expansion of a bursary to allow part-time professional students access to U of T gyms over the summer.

UTGSU executives further vote to freeze honoraria increases, following cuts due to Student Choice Initiative

Finance Commissioner Branden Rizzuto also introduced a motion drafted by the executives to freeze their own honoraria.

Rizzuto explained that the executive honoraria has been tied to a CUPE 3902, Unit 1 Collective Agreement, which has caused the executive honoraria to rise with increases of Teaching Assistant wages. CUPE 3902 is a union for U of T education workers.

The honoraria were slated to increase by two per cent the following year. However, in anticipation of funding cuts to the UTGSU as a result of the Ontario government’s Student Choice Initiative, the executives introduced the motion to cancel the raise and freeze their honoraria.

The motion passed in a vote by members of the General Council.

UTSU to donate $100,000 to Hart House to improve accessibility

Incoming UTSU Board strikes finance, ad-hoc mental health committees

UTSU to donate $100,000 to Hart House to improve accessibility

Representatives from the outgoing University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors voted on April 28 to donate $100,000 from its Accessibility Resources Fund to Hart House. The donation aims to make it easier for people with disabilities to access the building.

The grant will contribute to the construction of a universal washroom at Hart House, which would be designed to minimize boundaries and restrictions for occupants with disabilities.  

The outgoing Board also voted to approve the UTSU’s 20192024 Strategic Plan, with changes, following criticism of the plan by directors in a previous Board meeting on April 4.

The intention of the plan is to provide a clear long-term direction and vision for the union, as well as improve continuity of key initiatives between each turnover of directors and executives.

UTSU President Joshua Bowman, who assumed the presidency following the end of the outgoing Board’s meeting, explained in an email to The Varsity the notable changes to the plan since the previous Board meeting.

The first was to recommend that the UTSU’s communications will “strive to comply with AODA [Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act] regulations.”

The second was to recommend that UTSU representatives view decision-makers as “partners”, rather than “representatives.”

“This is an important alteration,” wrote Bowman, “as the title of ally implicitly states that decision-makers would be working in our best interest, which is not always true especially given recent events.”

The third change was to highlight campus groups — including clubs, student societies, and levy groups — as a focus for the UTSU to foster relationships and to strengthen relations and engagement with students.

Incoming Board strikes ad-hoc mental health committee, finance committee

The incoming Board of Directors for 201920 held its first meeting, shortly after the last outgoing board meeting on the same day.

The new Board struck an ad-hoc mental health committee, which Bowman explained would meet and discuss “solutions that we see from our own individual lived experiences, and the communities that we come from.”

Long-term goals of the committee are to gather responses from U of T students through surveys; interact with various student societies, divisional faculties, and equity-seeking communities; and ultimately submit a report to U of T’s Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health.

Academic Director of Humanities Keenan Krause; Faculty of Dentistry Director Lucia Santos; University College Director Lina Maragha; Director of Applied Sciences and Engineering Jeremy Sharapov; and Victoria College Director Thomas Siddall were elected by the Board to serve on the mental health committee.

The Board also struck its Finance Committee, which will oversee the union’s budget and finances.

The directors on the committee are Academic Director of Mathematical and Physical Sciences Michael Morris; St. Michael’s College Director Neeharika Hemrajani; Director of Applied Science and Engineering Harrison Chan; Woodsworth College Director Andrea Chiappetta; and Professional Faculties at-large Directors Katharina Vrolijik and Hasma Habibiy.

Nothing about us without us

An open letter to the University of Toronto administration on the mental health crisis

Nothing about us without us

Content warning: discussion of suicide.

Dear President Meric Gertler, Vice-Provost Sandy Welsh, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine Trevor Young, and Governing Council of the University of Toronto,

We — the students of the university you serve — write to you publicly, as a last resort, because we are in crisis. In light of the University of Toronto’s ongoing mental health crisis, students are best equipped to advise on and address these urgent concerns, which are matters of life and death — our own. We are writing to demand that you listen to what we are saying.

Since the second student suicide in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology in less than nine months, on March 17, students have sought available avenues to express their concerns and proposals, including reaching out to your offices in various ways, and intervening in Governing Council’s Business Board meeting on March 18. Through extensive consultations since then, students have collectively drafted a follow-up report of over 40 pages titled Nothing About Us Without Us,” which summarizes recent student action, testimonies, and demands arising from the crisis.

Initially, these student-led efforts were met with administrative interest. Janine Robb, Executive Director of the Health & Wellness Centre, arranged for focus group meetings, and President Gertler’s March 28 email stated that “we have listened, we have heard you, and we will continue to do so. We share your concerns, and we are strongly committed to collaborating with you to address them.”

It is not difficult to listen to what we are telling the university. The key student position on this issue has been simple, unanimous, and continuous since March 18: nothing about us without us. Students demand to be included, as a majority, in all aspects of the administration’s plans to address U of T’s mental health crisis.

Unfortunately, the proposed Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, with only three students slated to represent the collective interests of some 90,000 students, is not the collaborative effort that students were expecting based on the preliminary demands made on March 18 and the Nothing About Us Without Us report. Limited student membership and the vague wording surrounding the task force’s mandate have raised concerns about the lack of transparency, diversity, and accountability mechanisms to ensure that the task force constitutes a meaningful and effective response to the crisis.

There have been prior committees that have clearly failed to bring about the change needed. The university’s refusal to meet student demands — specifically, majority representation within such bodies — will condemn the task force’s work to irrelevance at best, and complacency in the ongoing crisis at worst. As the task force stands, it risks losing any legitimacy with students who have been repeatedly told that their voices are being “listened to,” but who have in fact not yet had their proposed solutions heard, let alone seriously considered, by the university administration.

Students demand once again to be meaningfully consulted from the beginning on any mental health-related efforts and policies. Based upon recent engagement — or lack thereof — with administration, it is clear that student leadership and diverse voices will not be centred in administrative-led initiatives such as the task force. Furthermore, students have received little to no clarification regarding the steps that will be taken in the future by such entities to ensure that there is adequate consultation with diverse stakeholders.

In light of the past inadequacies of presidential and provostial committees and working groups on mental health — failures to which these recent suicides stand as a tragic testament — students demand to know what mechanisms are in place to hold the administration accountable, if the labour and recommendations of another group of experts do not translate into tangible, integrated, systems-level solutions.

In the absence of these preconditions, students wish to make clear that the task force — and any similar efforts — will lack legitimacy, efficacy, and support from students and mental health advocates on our campuses. As is demonstrated by the growing number of student, student group, and union signatories to the “Nothing About Us Without Us” pledge of “commitment to helping hold the University administration accountable throughout the upcoming year on the issues, demands, and recommendations related to the [Nothing About Us Without Us report],” students are committed to continuing the collective organizing that has been spurred by the mental health crisis.

In light of student demands, which have repeatedly been made clear to administration over the past month, we must ask that the task force not advance in its current form. Once again, we ask you to stop and to really listen to what we are saying.

We urge you to genuinely and seriously consider both our concerns and our proposals, along with our welfare and our lives. We call upon you, in good faith, to give us concrete seats at a table for dialogue and negotiation, rather than tokenism — an unacceptable outcome, which we will have no choice but to resist. For the sake of those whose lives still hang in the balance, we cannot and we will not accept it.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Layla Ahmed, Zachary Beich, Sabrina Brathwaite, Catherine Clarke, Sarah Colbourn, Oliver Daniel, Raluca Geampana, Ben Hjorth, Arjun Kaul, Lucinda Qu, Sheila Rasouli, Nouran Sakr, Max Xi, Adam Zendel, Kristen Zimmer


To show your support for this letter, please add your name to the petition.

To commit yourself and/or your student group to helping hold the University administration accountable as student mental health advocates continue to advocate for the reform outlined in the “Nothing About Us Without Us” report, please sign the pledge.

To illustrate the consistent and repeated efforts of students to engage in meaningful dialogue with the university at all levels, and the increasing resistance of the administration to that engagement, here is a timeline of key events in the mental health crisis over the past year. 

  • June 24, 2018: a student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre; students criticized the university’s response, calling for better mental health services.
  • June 27, 2018: Governing Council approves the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) as “a non-punitive option” for students struggling with mental health. However, students in the months since have frequently cited the policy as a deterrent to voluntarily seeking help, and as disciplinary in nature if not in name.  
  • March 17, 2019: a second student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre, the third reported on-campus suicide within the past year.
  • March 18, 2019: a silent protest congregated at Simcoe Hall; student protesters later moved to the Medical Sciences Building, where Governing Council’s Business Board meeting had been relocated in reaction to the protest. Student representatives invited into the meeting shared a collectively-drafted statement of preliminary concerns and demands, to which Gertler responded with “an openness, and indeed an 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.” On the same day, a change.org petition entitled Better Mental Health Services at the University of Toronto” was started; it currently has over 25,500 signatures.
  • March 25, 2019: as a result of this petition, students participated in a focus group run by Robb. Students raised various concerns regarding discrepancies in the treatment of students between programs and instructors; UMLAP; the role of campus police in crisis situations; and more. Robb shared an intent to hold a second focus group. Plans are underway to schedule this second meeting for the end of May.
  • March 28, 2019: an email from Gertler was circulated among the U of T community, marking the university’s first acknowledgement of the death in Bahen as a suicide and the first mention of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health.
  • April 2, 2019: after scheduling a meeting for April 5 with Gertler and other top administrators, a student representative asked if they would be willing to make the meeting accessible to a larger number of students or to livestream the meeting, in order to make the discussion more transparent and accountable. This request was cited by the president’s office as sufficient grounds to cancel the meeting. However, this meeting was later rescheduled to April 10 on the condition that the meeting would not be open to the public.
  • April 3, 2019: the first complete draft of Nothing About Us Without Us was publicized and shared online by students and student organizations. Robb, along with Senior Director of Student Success Heather Kelly and Senior Director of Student Experience David Newman , met with two students who presented this draft to them. A willingness to meet again in the near future was shared by the three administrators. That same day, the nomination process and composition of the task force was publicized, and it was revealed that only three students would be entrusted with the concerns of a student body numbering 90,077 in the 2017–2018 school year.
  • April 10, 2019: a small group of student activists were granted a half-hour meeting with Gertler, Welsh, and Director Office of the Vice-Provost & Student Policy Advisor Meredith Strong,  where copies of Nothing About Us Without Us were shared and key themes and demands were summarized. Students present explicitly asked if they would be meeting again with the president for further discussion; he responded positively, before clarifying that this may not happen before the task force’s first meeting. Students insisted that the lack of student consultation prior to the task force’s structuring, and the lack of diverse representation therein, be recognized as problematic and addressed accordingly. Gertler responded that “our intent is really to keep the group small” and that the task force is meant to solicit input via external consultations.
  • April 12, 2019: after the April 10 meeting, student advocates sent a follow-up email to the president’s office. Students received a response on April 18, stating that Young, who is heading the task force, would be the appropriate figure to contact moving forward.
  • April 14, 2019: a student advocate contacted administration to express concerns regarding a lack of adequate in-person advertising of the counselling services in the Robarts Library; the student had seen only one poster about it. A response was received April 18, stating that the administration believed that the existing social media work and postering at various libraries are adequate advertisement and that the administration would not consider an additional poster. The student advocate in question replied on April 19 addressing these claims, but no further responses were received from administration.
  • April 18, 2019: a student activist reached out to Young requesting a meeting regarding the task force’s composition and mandate. They were informed later that day that “once the task force has been struck there will be opportunities for individuals and groups to participate and submit information to Dean Young and the other members… Until that time Dean Young is not available to meet.” Another student activist independently sent a 1,240-word email to the President, Provost, and Vice-Provost Students, indicating that the task force nominations process was potentially ableist and classist. Gertler responded to this email on April 24, saying that he would share this feedback with his colleagues. Gertler agreed that the administration “should consider ways to create more opportunities for consultation” with students, but also stated that groups like the task force “are intended to be small,” and “members are not expected to come with the ability to speak for all persons of this group, but are chosen for their ability to exercise discretion, listen to various inputs, and collect and synthesize feedback and information.”
  • April 23, 2019: the president’s office replied to student advocates to clarify the administration’s position, stating that “since the President has met with you and heard your views on this important matter, another meeting with the President will not be forthcoming.” Additionally, the president’s office expressed “that there are no plans for a presidential town hall-style meeting” that would allow a broader coalition of students to openly engage with administration on this issue.

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.

“Priority Investments”: the board meeting after Bahen

Students press the administration for better mental health resources and policy change

“Priority Investments”: the board meeting after Bahen

Content warning: discussions of suicide.

On March 17, another student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

We’ve lost at least three members of our student community to suicide this school year. Their stories are not mine to tell.

On March 18, I was one of five students allowed into U of T’s Business Board meeting. Students deserve to know what happened in that room. This is a story I can tell.

Like most students, I learned of the tragedy through Facebook on the night that it happened. I stayed awake refreshing my home page. By the next morning, students had created an event page called “Protest UofT’s Inaction.” Word spread quickly. Hundreds of us planned to unite in peaceful protest outside of President Meric Gertler’s office on King’s College Circle from 2:00 to 6:00 pm. When I arrived at Simcoe Hall, students were protesting outside, while Campus Police officers blocked access to the inside. Hearing that a meeting was taking place on Simcoe Hall’s second floor, four of us went to the back door of Convocation Hall to try the elevators. The elevator wouldn’t budge without a key.

I felt the sting of an obvious metaphor as I kept pressing the button. Only a select few have access to the top.

We gave up on the Simcoe sit-in and made our way to the Medical Sciences Building, where we heard the Business Board meeting would be moved. We got as close as we could to the office before Campus Police blocked off the next door. Students sat in the hall, maintaining a clear path to the door and any exit route. We’re not in the camp of blocking the way. Eventually, someone came from the meeting to offer three students a seat in the meeting. The spots filled up immediately. I ran up to Lucinda Qu, a student activist who was about to go in.

“You have to talk about the mandatory leave,” I urged.

“I will, I promise,” she said. I sat back down. A few minutes later, the same person who let three of us in came back out. There was room for two more students. This time, I was one of them.

The two of us joined the three other students sitting at the back of the room. During the meeting’s first few minutes, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr acknowledged the recent tragedy and addressed mental health on campus. She mentioned new support systems for students in crisis at this time, and underscored last year’s investments in new counsellors and additional aid.

When the provost finished, my fellow students and I were poised to continue this discussion, but the board secretary changed the topic. “The main focus of our meeting today is student fees and budget,” he said. The students’ concern over U of T’s mental health crisis was not ‘the main focus,’ at least not here. Someone gave us copies of the 2019-2020 budget report. I opened the booklet to the centre spread and saw bold white letters on a glossy blue background: “Priority Investments.” A metaphor put into words. As Governing Council members discussed budgetary planning and tuition changes, I realized that our demands for better mental health services were not a priority investment. I looked at the other student who had walked in with me.

“Wait — what exactly are we here for?” they asked me. This student held a framed picture of their friend who had died by suicide. Five students were physically present in the meeting, but when I looked at the picture, I realized that we were six. Perhaps, in some form or other, we were even more.

“I have no idea,” I said. I had no idea why — or how — a regular budgetary meeting was happening as though students weren’t protesting outside, as though a student hadn’t died the day before.

On the back of the budget report, I scribbled notes on why the university’s mandatory leave of absence policy fails to comply with the criteria outlined by Ontario Human Rights Commission. The other students compiled a statement about U of T’s mental health crisis on a public Google Doc, where students from the outside chimed in with online suggestions. There weren’t just five of us in the room. There were dozens.

After 45 minutes of budget talks, the board secretary addressed the elephant in the room: the students. He gave us a few minutes to speak. Lucinda read a statement on behalf of the students who could not make it into the room.

“To the thousands of us that will spend years of our lives here,” she said, “and to the handful of us who will end our lives here, this is disheartening.” My heart sank and a lump rose in my throat. Lucinda read sections of the collaborative document where students had listed inadequate responses: “It is UNACCEPTABLE to have waiting lists for access to mental health services. It is UNACCEPTABLE to have understaffed and unresponsive counseling services.”

In the Google Doc, students capitalized “UNACCEPTABLE,” flagging the need for emphasis. Lucinda’s voice carried this collective inflection. I think my voice would have cracked. “Time and time again,” Lucinda said, “we have participated [in] fruitless discussions with people who are supposed to be our allies.” The board secretary interrupted her. “I’m going to ask you to sum up,” he said. Crucial discussions become fruitless when cut short. Despite the impossible task of condensing a crisis in one minute, Lucinda pressed the administration to work with us “in a public, honest, and materially significant capacity.”

The secretary thanked her for “that thoughtful and well-articulated presentation.” President Meric Gertler expressed his shared concerns and thanked everyone who contributed to the statement. “We recognize that institutions like this university can and should do more to address these issues,” he said.

The president stated that the university has “invested in good faith — not bad faith — in many service improvements across all three of our campuses, and the investments are quite substantial. Clearly, there is the need to do more.” He continued, “I just want to signal here an openness, and indeed an 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.”

Regehr spoke next. She said that the administration will continue to invest in mental health, while acknowledging that many of those current investments fall short. “With respect to consultation,” she added, “we will absolutely continue to meet with our students. Professor [Sandy] Welsh and I meet regularly with our student leaders, and that is an issue that is on the table and we commit to continuing to do that.” In response to calls for systemic change at U of T, Regehr explained that the university has a “new expert panel on the undergraduate educational experience.”

When the provost finished, the board secretary thanked us again for this moving speech before moving on. I put my hand up. “I’m sorry, we can’t take questions at this time,” the secretary said.

I didn’t have any questions. I had a statement.

“We need to address the mandatory leave of absence policy,” I said. “A student died this weekend, and we can afford to spend a few extra minutes listening to students. I don’t know when I’m going to have another opportunity to share why U of T’s mandatory leave of absence policy is unacceptable.” I stumbled over every word. I was already standing and ready to read when the board secretary granted me permission.

“I think you should be allowed to read it, but I’d ask that you keep your comments to one minute,” he said. “It’s an additional request and we’d like to move on with our regular budget meeting, so please keep your comments brief.” I spoke for four minutes and 58 seconds. Here is part of what I said:

U of T’s mandatory leave of absence policy is incompatible with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The policy claims to “provide reasonable accommodation to the point of undue hardship” as per the OHRC. On January 29, OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane wrote, “the Policy may result in discrimination” and “falls short of meeting the duty to accommodate under the Code.” By approving the policy after making minor edits, the university sends the following message to students: although the OHRC flags potential human rights violations, the policy still stands, and its administrators stand behind the policy. By stressing the OHRC’s “duty to accommodate,” the policy preemptively defends itself from critique within a human rights framework. If a student is in crisis, the policy claims, “it may not be consistent with the duty to accommodate to merely let the student confront significant negative academic consequences.” By touting a mandated leave of absence as an accommodation, the university misunderstands the OHRC’s policies. This policy fits what the OHRC calls “denial of access,” whereby post-secondary institutions “exclude students with disabilities” and denies them “equal opportunity in their education.” The OHRC also claims “education providers have a duty to accommodate students with disabilities up to the point of undue hardship.” Allowing mentally ill/Mad-identified students barrier-free access to education does not constitute undue hardship; it grants them the equal opportunity that post-secondary institutions must provide. According to specific criteria listed in the OHRC, undue hardship entails accommodations that are too onerous in terms of cost and health and safety.

The policy capitalizes on the “health and safety” criterion of undue hardship by conflating mentally ill people at risk to themselves with those who pose a risk to others, a narrative which perpetuates discriminatory stereotypes. The policy conflates “a risk of harm to self or others” in the threshold for a mandated leave. This scenario maintains that Mad people are dangerous. Most Mad/mentally ill people, however, are not violent but subject to violence. If a student poses a risk to others, however, the university should mandate removal from studies as per the student code of conduct. There are, however, documented incidents where abusers and assailants have been allowed to remain in class and on campus. The OHRC cautions against “ignorance and misunderstanding about people with psychosocial disabilities,” and the policy reveals such ignorance. Students may appeal their mandated leave “no later than 10 business days after the decision.” This 10-day deadline ignores the complexities of mental health. Someone admitted to a psychiatric hospital, as I have been several times, might not be able to contact the university and organize their defence. Students must also apply “at least 30 days prior to the term in which the student wishes to enrol.” A student forced to leave at the beginning or middle of a term can only return in the following term. If a student does not meet the 30-day deadline, the university may “terminate” their registration. The student must organize around their crisis to ensure their post-secondary education is neither suspended nor terminated. A student’s return would involve “periodic review,” “verification,” “monitoring,” and “indication that the student may be subject to ongoing conditions.” This kind of surveillance will exacerbate symptoms of paranoia and anxiety that many people with mental illness experience. The policy stigmatizes students with mental health issues. This stigma, the OHRC claims, may “lead institutions to develop policies, procedures and decision-making practices that exclude or marginalize people with mental health disabilities.”

I urge you to revise a policy that is clearly not working and clearly not for us. I suggest a policy designed to mandate the leave of abusers and assailants on campus who pose actual threats to other students, and a separate policy designed to support students in crisis who may pose a risk to themselves. Accommodate us without removing our autonomy. As the policy stands, students are afraid to seek help for fear of being placed on a mandated leave.

Posted by Lucinda Qu on Monday, March 18, 2019

My voice shook more than my hands. At this point, I went off script to maintain eye contact with individual members until they nodded.

“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, [are] life-threatening.” I needed the governors to understand this fear. Last semester, University College’s mental wellness commissioner, Kiana Habibagahi, and I met with Vice-Provost Sandy Welsh to discuss the mandatory leave policy. Welsh said that the policy would be implemented in very few cases. To a person in crisis, this condition means nothing. The fear of being the rare exception keeps students from seeking help.

I thanked the board members for their time and sank in my seat. I cried. My fellow students gave me back-pats and a glass of water. The rim of the cup missed my mouth and most of the water spilled down my shirt, which was already damp from nervous sweat. I was a sopping puffy-eyed mess in a room full of people on Ontario’s Sunshine List.

The provost spoke: “I’ll just respond very briefly. I really want to thank the student for bringing this to our attention.” I tried to listen. I dissociated instead.

“When we brought the policy through last year,” the provost said, “we did undertake that we would be reporting back to governance about use of the policy and we will be doing that, as we promised.” I’m not interested in pulling back governance, or in the policy’s rare application. As long as the policy stands, so does the possibility of it being used against us.

The board secretary thanked the provost before shifting gears. “So unless there’s any other business to be raised by the board, the meeting will now move on —” One of the board members steered the discussion back to the policy, describing it as having “a certain chilling effect.” I sat up in my seat. The unexpected ally continued: “It is a strong concern and I have to admit, having thought about this policy in the months since we passed it, I have more concerns than when we approved it.” This shift from platitudes to critique hinted at progress. I felt, for the first time, that one person in the administration was on our side. He thanked us as we left the room. I’d like to thank him back.

At the end of the hall, two Campus Police officers were waiting to usher us out. An officer placed his hand on our backs to move us through the door one by one, dividing us with a firm push and a loud “Next!” It was as though we were criminals. “Next!” I waited in line behind my four fellow students. “Next!” I have PTSD from a history of sexual assault. Too many strangers have put their hands on my body. “Next!” The officer pressed his hand against my lower back.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Fine,” he said, with a have-it-your-way indignation. I was delirious from a sleepless night and a nightmarish day. And now I was triggered.

When I felt the officer’s hand on my back, Lucinda’s statement came back to me: “It is unacceptable.” It is unacceptable that campus police use intimidation strategies. It is unacceptable that campus police do not consider students who may have a history of trauma, students who come from marginalized communities that are susceptible to police brutality, students who have the right not to be touched. It is unacceptable that I have to include a tangent on the police in this article.

Yet poor mental health care and police intervention inevitably ally. I call on the administration to address the systemic connection between campus police responses and issues surrounding student mental health. In a recent meeting that a group of students and I held with Janine Robb, the Executive Director of the Health & Wellness Centre, I learnt that two years ago, campus police could handcuff students during a mental health crisis. Today, careless campus police actions are symptoms of this sanist legacy.

And to the officer who touched students that day: keep your hands off us.

I finally joined the students who were peacefully protesting in the hall. I knew they’d be waiting for us. Lucinda and I gave brief statements. Microphones and TV cameras loomed. Still, the daunting media apparatus intimidated me less than the board meeting whose members wanted us to keep our statements brief. No one was watching the clock here. I sat back down among the protesters, most of whom I didn’t know. I just knew that I cared about these people deeply and felt their care just as intensely. I cannot overstate the richness of our communal support.

Toward the end of the evening, a group of students lingered in our space of protest. On his way out, Gertler addressed us. He thanked Lucinda and me for our moving speeches. We thanked him for the opportunity to speak. He then expressed a strong desire to engage in further discussions with students.

Students are not interested in being heard without being listened to. It will be the administrators’ privilege to listen to those of us who are still here to speak. When deference doesn’t get us change, we need to make demands. I’m demanding that the administration consult with us and implement substantive policy changes as per our pleas.

“I’ll be honest,” I said to Gertler. “Students feel like the administration is working against us, not for or with us.” Prepositions matter. Consultations matter. These forms of language and communication often go wrong. He assured that he would consult with students.

President Gertler, I will take you up on your offer for further discussions, for meaningful and regular consultations. My friends and I look forward to working with you and your colleagues.

As we continue this work, our responsibility to one another requires respect for those who are grieving, for those who need privacy, and for those whose stories are not ours to tell. Amid the anger, the protests, and the collective demand for change, we cannot forget the mourning.

We cannot forget the seemingly small gestures that just might sustain someone who is struggling. After the protests, the board meeting, the media coverage, the organizing, and the grief of that long Monday, I met up with one of my closest friends. He brought me to his place so that I could do laundry and take a shower. It had been a while since I had done either of those things. The next day, another dear friend gave me Tylenol for a crushing headache and let me lie in her lap for a moment. My friends’ simple acts of care were more necessary than I can explain. I’d argue that helping someone meet their basic needs is more important than reading a statement at a board meeting.

I’d like to end with a note on language. People do not ‘commit’ suicide; they die by suicide as a result of a broken, ableist, and sanist system that does not support those who struggle. Prepositions matter.

On June 24, 2018, a student died by suicide in the Bahen Centre.

On June 27, 2018, Governing Council approved the university-mandated leave of absence policy.

We warned the administration that the policy would dissuade students from seeking help, that the risk of student suicide could rise.

We hoped we wouldn’t be right.


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 Breakdown: U of T’s policy on reporting suicides

Policy is nebulous, with official responses differing case-to-case

The Breakdown: U of T’s policy on reporting suicides

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

In what is being described as a mental health crisis at U of T, students have protested the administration’s handling of suicides on campus and its perceived lack of support and mental health services. The Varsity looked into how U of T tracks information about student deaths on campus and the university’s policy on acknowledging suicides.

Campus Police at UTSG reported three attempted suicides or deaths in 2017 and one in 2016, only accounting for on-campus incidents. The 2018 report has not yet been released.

For U of T, the decision to notify staff and students is determined by the Office of the Vice-Provost Students and the affected faculty, according to Elizabeth Church, U of T spokesperson.

In an email to The Varsity, Church wrote that the university does not confirm the identity of deceased students without the permission of the student’s family. She also confirmed that U of T “may acknowledge” the death and identity of a student if released by Toronto Police or other official channels.

The 2017 Student Health and Well-Being at the University of Toronto report, which surveyed 4,752 students, revealed that at least 12 per cent of respondents, or 570 students, have either contemplated or attempted suicide in the past 12 months.

Besides national surveys and Campus Police reports, the university does not publish any other information on suicides on campus.

A Toronto Star report from 2017 found that most universities release statements on student deaths, but rarely release the student’s name and almost never acknowledge the cause of death. The Public Health Agency of Canada told the Star that statistics collected by institutions on suicide are necessary to fully inform prevention efforts and policies.


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.