This time of year is tough on mental health — don’t be afraid to ask for help

From U of T’s Health & Wellness to phone and text services, you have options

This time of year is tough on mental health — don’t be afraid to ask for help

In an institution as large as the University of Toronto, with over 90,000 students across our three different campuses, it is normal to feel as though you are just another number.

Mental illness is one of Canada’s major health concerns. Approximately one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness or addiction problem in their lifetime. This statistic only grows more concerning among young adults, with suicide being the second leading cause of death for those aged 15–24, coming only after accidents. In response to a 2016 survey of Ontario students conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 40 per cent of participants said that they experience feelings of anxiety or depression but did not seek medical assistance.

Studying in such a high-pressure environment means that it is likely that thoughts of inadequacy will flit in and out of your head. Yet U of T students are the masters of presenting the illusion that everything is fine as we rush along St. George Street. Often, we end up trivializing our stresses by telling our friends that we just have a lot of work on our plates or that we haven’t slept in a week. In actuality, sometimes a bad day is caused by more than our academics or extracurriculars. Why is it that even if we are not alone in our struggles, it sometimes seems futile to reach out for help? And if we do end up asking for help, why is it so difficult to get it?

One barrier to asking for help is the stigma surrounding mental illness, particularly in a competitive academic climate. We often don’t want to admit that something is wrong, because then we will feel judged and misunderstood or be treated differently by our peers. We pass off our worries as trivial or merely a symptom of an increasing workload, when in reality, the causes can be complex and perhaps worth exploring with a friend or professional.

Societal attitudes may also contribute to this fear of being vulnerable. While depression is reported to be less frequent among men than women, men comprise four of every five suicide deaths.

“We have inculcated a culture in our society that men have to be tough,” says Dr. Don McCreary, co-chair of Toronto Men’s Health Network. “Weakness is not considered to be masculine.” Too often, men don’t talk about their emotional difficulties, because it runs contrary to modern ideals of masculinity: silent resolve and detachment.

Institutional barriers may be at play as well, with a certain university-mandated leave of absence policy being recently imposed. This may result in students with serious mental illnesses being even more intimidated to disclose their mental health issues and reach out for support.

Another issue of access is the long wait time, and this often means that students will have to cope with their mental health alone until there is a vacancy with a counsellor or psychiatrist. It can take many weeks of waiting for just an initial intake assessment; once the assessment is completed, students will be placed on yet another waitlist until they finally receive an appointment with a psychotherapist, psychiatrist, or other specialist.

If you think that you may be suffering from poor mental health — even if you are unsure whether your mental condition warrants serious treatment — it may be helpful to book an appointment with the Health & Wellness Centre. Although it is near-impossible to get an immediate appointment, you do have free access to the walk-in clinics as a U of T student. If it is your first time seeking help, Health & Wellness will appoint you a family physician who will discuss your symptoms and then refer you to a specialist appropriate to your needs.

In-person one-on-one counselling on campus isn’t just limited to options at Health & Wellness — there are services that are college-specific, but you’ll need to be part of the affiliated college. University College, for example, has recently implemented a service called Counselling & Psychotherapy, a short-term counselling service available to students for concerns ranging anywhere from self-esteem issues to anxiety or depression to substance or alcohol abuse. This option may be beneficial if you are currently on a waitlist and you need immediate professional attention.

There are some other more immediate options such as Good2Talk (1-866-925-5454), a helpline through which you are anonymously connected with a professional counsellor who will help you navigate your feelings and offer suggestions for services that are most appropriate for your situation. Similar helplines include the Gerstein Centre Crisis Line (416-929-5200) and the Toronto Distress Centre (416-408-4357), both of which operate 24 hours a day.

If you do not wish to speak on the phone, there are also online chat services, such as The Online Chat & Text service, which operates in the same vein as a helpline. You can also contact Kids Help Phone, which has text, phone, and web support and offers help regardless of age, and the Canada Suicide Prevention Service, which is accessible via phone and text.

These provide you with an avenue to voice your concerns anonymously and receive professional advice from a highly trained volunteer responder.

However, there are limitations to the helplines, which is why it is even more important that U of T prioritizes mental health care for its students. For example, there may be some occasions when you are put on hold for helplines such as Good2Talk, if all available responders are occupied. As such, it’s important to have a range of options readily available in case your go-to isn’t feasible. In some cases, calling a close friend or family member may be the best option.

Remember: seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of acknowledging that something is amiss. It takes a lot of courage to take the steps to seek therapy or disclose personal issues to your peers.

Reducing mental health stigma starts with being open to being vulnerable. No problem is too big or too small. Every concern matters.

Op-ed: What does effective mental health advocacy look like?

Stigma reduction and awareness campaigns are addressing cultural barriers to positive mental health, but structural barriers persist

Op-ed: What does effective mental health advocacy look like?

Many students are aware of Canada’s startling mental health statistics. One in five Canadians are likely to experience a mental illness or addiction problems in any given year, and youth aged 15–24 are at greatest risk. For these youth, suicide is one of the leading health-related causes of death.

Given that mental health has become an increasingly prominent topic of discussion on postsecondary campuses and in the media over the past few years, one could argue that we have already made significant progress in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness. With numerous student groups offering peer support sessions, destressing activities, and open spaces to share personal experiences with mental health struggles, it would seem that the mental health landscape for postsecondary students is improving.

However, widespread opposition toward U of T’s recently approved university-mandated leave of absence policy suggests that we still have a long way to go before students’ needs are adequately met. It seems to be common knowledge that our campus mental health services are lacking, and that student advocacy is required if we wish to see improvements to this system. What this advocacy looks like remains a vital question.

At Jack.org, a Canadian charity that trains and empowers youth to dismantle barriers to positive mental health through education and advocacy initiatives, volunteers like me typically look at two categories of barriers: cultural and structural.

As many young mental health advocates do, I initially gravitated toward addressing the cultural barriers to positive mental health, with a focus on stigma reduction and promoting mental health education. These initiatives do enhance our ability to identify potential struggles and make us more likely to reach out for social or professional support, but they do not address the fundamental gaps in how institutions support student mental health.

This is where structural barriers come into play, and this is where student initiatives and advocacy are currently lacking. In order to enact system-wide changes, we need to understand that mental health advocacy is not just a social endeavour, but also a political one. Students must therefore voice their concerns and recommendations, not just to each other and online, but to student unions, faculty, and administration. For example, if we want to advocate for improved access to counselling services, we should encourage collaboration between student groups, societies, and unions to lobby administrators and contribute to discussions surrounding policies and funding.

Despite the likelihood that significant improvements to our university’s mental health framework may take years to materialize, there are several actions we can take as students to incrementally improve our local mental health landscape. These range from developing resilience and stress-coping mechanisms to learning how to support peers in distress.

For students who want to get involved in mental health advocacy or contribute to student wellbeing on campus, they can join youth movements such as Jack.org and contribute to ongoing efforts to improve the mental health landscape, not only on campus, but at a provincial and national level. However, if they are entering the advocacy field, a critical approach must be taken in order to truly be impactful.

Research into identifying barriers to positive mental health is necessary and student initiatives should be planned in such a way that addresses these barriers directly. Although on-campus counselling services are often associated with long wait times, there are several external and online resources from which students may benefit. However, these are often poorly marketed to students. Therefore, Jack.org UofT developed a categorized resource brochure in collaboration with the University of Toronto Students’ Union, which printed over 2,500 copies to be distributed during orientation week in 2017.

Similarly, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union recently collaborated with the School of Graduate Studies to establish a Graduate Wellness Portal with a tri-campus resource directory. These resource directories serve as examples of small-scale initiatives that address a specific barrier to accessing mental health services — namely, the lack of marketing of resources to students.

This is in no way a call to abandon advocacy efforts targeting stigma reduction and cultural barriers related to positive mental health. These efforts are necessary both on and off campus to shift public opinion and promote help-seeking behaviour among folks who may be struggling with their mental health.

Instead, this is a call to action for students to be more critical about how we approach the topic of mental health on campus, and that we engage in initiatives, not because they seem well-intentioned, but because they will lead to impactful and measurable changes in the mental health landscape on campus and in our communities.

Daniel Derkach is a master’s student at the Institute of Medical Science. He was the 2017–2018 Chapter Co-Lead for Jack.org UofT.

Story against policy

Navigating U of T’s bureaucracy as a bipolar student with PTSD

Story against policy

Content warning: descriptions of sexual violence and suicide.

On January 29, 2017, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a bipolar mixed episode gone wrong.

On June 12, 2017, I was readmitted for a suicide attempt.

On June 27, 2018, the University of Toronto’s Governing Council approved the mandated leave of absence policy, cementing tools administrators had to remove students in crisis from their studies. Had the policy or similar policies been used a year ago, it would have upended my life. This policy will upend the lives of numerous students who also struggle with their mental health.

During my last year of high school in Switzerland, I was being treated for depression. I discontinued treatment and therapy when I came to U of T in the fall of 2014. I figured a new country and new phase in my life would allow for a fresh start, and to some extent, this was true.

But mental illness doesn’t stay behind in the country you leave. I suppressed this truth and revelled in the novelty of university life.

I suppressed this truth until I returned to Switzerland over my first winter break.

It happened on the morning of New Year’s Eve. I went for an early-morning run in my hometown. The crisp winter air filled my lungs and the familiar scenery filled me with bittersweet nostalgia. I was running along a beaten path lined with trees. A man jumped out from behind one of the trees and, as the stereotype goes, he sexually assaulted me. I remember running across the road. I remember screaming “no” on the sidewalk. Cars passed. Some drivers slowed down to see a display of hysteria before driving away. One person’s trauma is another person’s spectacle.

When I left Geneva a few days later, home didn’t feel like home anymore. Over the next month, I ignored my parents’ advice to contact U of T’s sexual assault counsellors. I didn’t want to revert to my high school self, a depressed person sitting in a therapist’s office. Meanwhile, I had regular Skype calls with the police in Geneva as part of the year-long process to prosecute my assailant. I thought that I could balance the re-traumatizing bureaucracy behind the investigation with schoolwork. I thought that I could handle it — until I couldn’t.

My nightmares turned into night terrors. When I wasn’t in class, I stayed in bed, too afraid to leave my dorm room. I drank alone. I gained 20 pounds. I fell back into depression, a familiar sadness that came with an unfamiliar trauma. I finally made an appointment with the sexual assault counsellor at Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

When I arrived, a receptionist at CAPS handed me a pen and a clipboard with a questionnaire. I filled it out in the waiting room, accidentally chewing the pen. When I was halfway through reducing my depression to a numerical value, the assault counsellor called me into her office.

“What brings you in today?” she asked. That’s how therapy starts. I had been in this situation before.

“I was assaulted,” I replied, clinging to the comforting ambiguity. I didn’t want to say ‘sexually assaulted.’ I didn’t want to say what happened.

The counsellor wanted me to say what happened. I racked my English literature brain for an escape route via euphemisms or circumlocution. “I was running and there was a man behind a tree and it just happened.”

The grammatically indefinite ‘it’ buffered me from the shock of retelling a violent story. But the counsellor pried for more.“

Did he put his penis against your body? I just want a better picture of what happened.”

I wanted to say ‘no.’ No to the question. No to re-traumatizing retelling. No to graphic details for the sake of graphic details. Instead, I said “yes.” One person’s trauma is another person’s picture.

After four appointments, the assault counsellor decided that I needed to see a psychiatrist instead. The re-triggering sessions were all for nothing.

After a few months on a waitlist, I got an appointment with a psychiatrist, who prescribed antidepressants and asked me questions about why I wanted to die. She seemed bored by my case during our 15-minute appointments. It’s difficult to explain suicidal ideation in a tight timeframe.

I stopped seeing her after two months.

When I returned to Geneva the summer after first year to see my family and attend the prosecution of my assailant, my body got sick. I underwent a series of tests, including blood work, an MRI scan, an ultrasound, a bone density scan, and a smell test (which I failed).

I was misdiagnosed with partial Kallmanns Syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome, and hyposmia — an impaired sense of smell. I was accurately diagnosed with a pituitary microadenoma (which sounds scarier than it is) and osteoporosis (which, to a 19-year-old, sounds as scary as it is).

My body matched my mind: both were starting to break down.

I entered second year feeling older, and not in a good way. I made an appointment with a doctor at the Health & Wellness Centre to discuss management options for my osteoporosis. This doctor was kind and thorough. She also recognized that I was depressed. She prescribed medication I was comfortable with and put me on a waitlist to see a different psychiatrist at CAPS.

My doctor continued to see me regularly and offered me more help than I had received from either the sexual assault counsellor or the psychiatrist in first year. For the first time, I experienced good care at Health & Wellness.

I continued to receive good care with an excellent psychiatrist at CAPS. Although my medical care got better, I got worse. I experienced not only depression but also psychosomatic reactions to trauma, a response which manifested in tics and a stutter.

It started in January 2016, about a year after my assault. My head jerked insistently to the left, keeping me in a constant state of negation, and my shoulders shook like laughter. I felt like a modern-day hysteric. I could handle the physical pain of these motor tics. What I could not handle was my loss of language.

With the thick stutter clipping my words, I could no longer speak in class or be the engaged English student that I wanted to be. I dropped one of my classes because I couldn’t stand the looks I was getting from the other students. Fewer classes meant fewer people had to see my awkward twitching body.

Over a few months, my psychiatrist and doctor treated my psychosomatic symptoms.

Although I still twitch whenever I get stressed, startled, or over-caffeinated, my tics are no longer a 24-hour full-body workout. Aside from depression, panic attacks, night terrors, motor tics, osteoporosis, and a faulty sense of smell, I finished second year relatively scot-free.

In retrospect, second year was a breeze compared to the years that followed. Things took a turn when I started experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder.

During the fall of third year, I felt good. Too good. I was energized in a way that I had never been before. Everything looked sharp, as though someone had increased the saturation and resolution of the world around me. I wrote thousands of words of terrible poetry, convinced that I had to publish a book immediately. My pressured speech and racing thoughts demanded an audience.

I would waltz around the Junior Common Room (JCR) to find someone to listen to my latest theories on behavioural homeostasis, the physical antimatter of our bodies, and Greek etymological connections to a specific musical chord progression. Friends would often stop me mid-speech to tell me they couldn’t follow. I was elated, electric. I could write an A-grade paper on modern poetry in a few hours and spend the rest of the night running around the city.

But this dream-like, sleepless state didn’t last. Eventually, I’d crash. After every high-energy episode, I’d spend weeks in bed, incapable of reading, writing, or thinking. These drastic mood and energy fluctuations would happen several times a month, stretching my brain like an overused elastic band.

My psychiatrist eventually identified these high-energy episodes as hypomania and diagnosed me with rapid cycling bipolar disorder type II. Afraid of losing the thrill of hypomania, I resisted the mood stabilizer and antipsychotic she suggested until my fluctuations landed me in the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

I stayed in an in-patient unit during February 2017. Had U of T used the new mandatory leave policy that year, or the existing Code of Student Conduct, the administrators could have removed me from school. Throughout my hospitalization, a Student Crisis Response Coordinator helped me manage my course work. She sent me comforting emails, telling me, “We will do everything possible to make sure things stay on track.”

One of my professors also messaged me while I was in the hospital: “Kristen, just checking in — do you need books? Can you have visitors? Please let me know — I’d be happy to come see you and bring you what you need.” Professor S. not only accommodated me as a student but also cared about me as a person.

I used one of my hour-long hospital passes to visit this professor. I’m not saying that all professors should offer to bring their students books in psychiatric hospitals. But if all professors had this level of compassion toward struggling students, perhaps we wouldn’t struggle as much.

I returned to school the week after I was discharged. If the current mandatory leave policy had been applied to me, this return would have been impossible. Students on enforced leave “must apply in writing” 30 days before the next school term. Along with asking an already vulnerable person to perform the emotional labour of self-advocacy, the policy expects people to schedule their crises.

If a student does not meet the 30-day timeframe, the university may “terminate the student’s registration.” I could not have written that application in the hospital. Would U of T have ended my undergraduate degree?

A month after I left the hospital, my psychiatrist went on maternity leave and CAPS transferred my care to someone different. When I asked my new psychiatrist if I could have therapy for my post-traumatic stress disorder, she refused. She said she wanted only to focus on treating my bipolarity, primarily with medication, because I “wasn’t ready” for trauma-informed counselling.

I acquiesced and dealt with the flashbacks and nightmares alone, ashamed that I had asked for help in the first place.

I rapid-cycled my way through the rest of third year. Since I missed my course deadlines, I petitioned for extensions during the summer. While my professors agreed to the deadlines I requested, the petition officers did not: “It is not reasonable to expect special considerations for substantial amounts of outstanding coursework after the courses have ended.” This email sank me.

The three Fs on my transcript replaced my 4.0. Failure, failure, failure.

I closed the email.

That night, I punished myself and, with a bipolar penchant for extremes, I took things too far. When I realized that what I was doing could end my life, I scribbled an apology and the names of some important people in my life (names that included Professor S). Most people would judge my reaction as melodramatic, and they wouldn’t be wrong.

But most people don’t have an illness that heightens emotions and fuels destructive impulsivity.

My mind is one of extremes: I experience happiness only as elation, sadness only as despair. When I woke up the next morning, my body was fine, but it also wasn’t. I rationalized that since I was still here, I had to seek medical help.

I went to CAPS for an emergency walk-in appointment with my psychiatrist. She called Campus Police. Campus Police called the emergency medical technicians after one officer asked to see the damage. I wanted to say no, but I didn’t really have a choice. The medical model, which the mandatory leave mirrors, seldom offers Mad people choices; instead, it intimidates. I was in a room full of police officers, a psychiatrist, and a mental health nurse.

Paramedics eventually joined the party. The police officers and paramedics escorted me out of CAPS. I felt like a criminal walking through the Koffler Centre. Inside the ambulance, a paramedic took my vitals and attempted small talk.

“So, what do you study?”

“English.”

“Cool, what kind of English?”

“Modern poetry.”

“Cool, and how’s modern poetry?”

“It’s fine.”

“Well, you know, we all have bad days. You just have to stay positive.”

A Campus Police officer stayed with me in the waiting room. She showed me pictures of her dog on her iPhone. I didn’t feel like talking about her dog. I didn’t feel like talking.

A security guard joined the police officer to observe me. A doctor examined me before making her final assessment: “You know this could have killed you, right?”

I shrugged off her finger-wagging. She then established whether I posed a physical threat to myself and/or other people.

The slash is a convenient punctuation mark.

Incidentally, the threshold for intervention for a mandated leave also conflates “harm to self or others.” Since it’s easier to justify a mandated leave of absence for students at risk to others than it is to mandate a leave for students at risk to themselves, the policy combines the two scenarios. I would have met this threshold.

If a denied petition was enough to push me over the edge, what would a mandatory leave do to students like me? After treatment and observation in Mount Sinai Hospital, practitioners sent me to CAMH, where I stayed the night. I returned to school and my work-study position the next day.

I appealed my denied petition, finished my coursework, finished my summer class, and finished third year — three very different Fs.

Toward the end of the summer, I returned to Switzerland, and, unfortunately, another trauma occurred. It happened on the night of August 22, 2017. I was raped in an alleyway behind the bus stop where I used to wait as a kid. My parents took me to a hospital, where I stayed overnight.

A nurse drew my blood and brought me to an adjustable bed. I pulled the papery white blanket over my body. There would be more tests, examinations, preventative injections, and pills to take when I woke up. Given my psychiatric hospitalizations that year, it was strange to be in a hospital for purely physical reasons.

Back in Toronto a few weeks later, I felt sick from the antibiotics and post-exposure prophylaxis pills I was taking in addition to psychotropic medication. I knew how trauma worked after my first assault; school would be hard, so I booked an appointment with my accessibility counsellor to discuss accommodations.

“Something traumatic happened,” I told her, hoping that was enough of a story to have my academic needs met. I clung to the indefiniteness of “something,” but my counsellor asked for more.

“Was it sexual trauma?” I wanted to say ‘no.’ No to invasive questions. No to prurient curiosity veiled as concern. No to counselling that so desperately lacks trauma-informed approaches. Again, I said “yes.” One person’s trauma is another person’s intrigue.

It was only after this second assault that my former psychiatrist agreed to transfer my care to a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma. For the first time, I experienced an appropriate approach to treating trauma. In my first appointment, the new psychiatrist said, “You can tell me as much or as little as you like. We don’t even have to talk about it.”

Different counsellors at U of T led me to believe that trauma therapy required traumatic retelling. This psychiatrist showed me an exit route without my having to search for one. He gave me the option to say ‘no,’ a ‘no’ I knew he’d respect. My care got better, but I got worse.

Toward the end of fall term in 2017, trauma took its toll and sparked a bipolar mixed episode. This episode included racing thoughts, heightened irritability, pressured speech, erratic energy, and about two hours of sleep a night over two weeks.

I hallucinated while trying to write a seminar presentation and paper on Virginia Woolf and Jacques Derrida (two writers who can make anyone’s head spin). I heard voices saying, “There’s something you need to show, there’s something you know.” I started seeing things that weren’t there.

Words transformed. The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library turned into Rape Fisher. I saw a mangled skeleton on College Street. After a rare nap, I woke up to a man in a mask. I saw devils on the day of my presentation. An hour before class, I ran around the JCR talking about Derrida and “what it all means” to anyone who would listen. My apologies to all these people.

Those who support the mandated leave policy would argue that I should have taken a leave of absence. But while students in these situations often need more time, more time does not mean mandated time away from one’s school community.

Last winter term, I took a creative writing course with Professor S. She let me write about my rape in a personal essay. Writing this essay restored my ability to write. It took me five months, but I eventually finished that Woolf paper. Had I been placed on leave, I would have lost the support I got from my professor.

On June 27, 2018, I joined a group of students in protest while Governing Council held a meeting to pass the mandated leave policy. We chanted and gave speeches outside Simcoe Hall. The noise we made reached Hart House, and our message reached the news.

While we made ourselves heard, the governors did not listen. At the end of the meeting, our voices were raw, and the policy passed. It rained that day.

I worry about students who could lose their jobs, their residency, their international student visas. I worry about marginalized students, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Colour, who will face the additional stress and discrimination of a mandatory leave. I worry about Disabled and Mad/Mentally Ill students. I worry about students dealing with difficult life experiences.

When the proposal first came to light, many of my friends and I were afraid to be on campus, afraid to be seen in CAPS and Accessibility Services. This policy will dissuade students from seeking help. This policy will divest Mad and Mentally Ill students of the dignity and agency they deserve. This policy will put people’s lives at risk.

The day after the mandatory leave policy passed, Professor S. emailed me: “Keep fighting — we studied human rights together, and your right to participate at your university is one.” Students will keep fighting against the policy. We will hold the policy administrators accountable for their discrimination until we’re guaranteed barrier-free access to education.

We will keep telling our stories. This was mine.

Illness as aesthetic

On the hierarchy of eating disorders

Illness as aesthetic
From the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, tuberculosis ravaged the Western world. Then known as consumption, this deadly infectious disease was responsible for 25 per cent of the deaths in Europe during this period, earning it the nickname ‘captain among these men of death.’

Those afflicted suffered from fevers, coughing, diarrhea, and emaciation. Yet, at the same time as it reached epidemic levels, tuberculosis became somewhat of a fashionable disease. There was a strong glamourization of patients who were observed to have pale skin, flushed cheeks, and extremely thin physiques, all attributes of the ideal female form. Regardless of the havoc that it wreaked, the appearance of tuberculosis patients was almost immediately popularized for its association with femininity.

Victorian fashion was taken over by pointed corsets with voluminous skirts, and red lips and pink cheeks against porcelain skin. Nineteenth century ‘consumptive chic’ was, in other words, an obsessive emulation of tuberculosis patients.

Thinness had become both a necessity and an aesthetic. By the end of the nineteenth century, anorexia nervosa was officially recognized as a mental disorder. Evidently, this dangerous cultural fascination with extreme restriction and thinness did not end there.

Anorexia nervosa has been in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) since its first edition. However, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder were not officially recognized until over 30 years later. Despite being relative newcomers to the DSM, both have higher prevalence rates than anorexia nervosa. Conversely, bulimia and binge-eating appear far less frequently in pop culture.

Our value-laden notion of appropriate feminine appearance and behaviour has generated a hierarchy that is reflected in media content. There are a slew of movies and books about anorexia, but seldom any about other eating disorders.

This narrow portrayal is not new. Romantic poets of the nineteenth century wrote of the pallor and near-emaciated thinness of tuberculosis patients, assisting in its fetishization. In today’s world, this is perpetuated by filmmakers and social media. This results in disproportionate representations of the three eating disorders, and creates a toxic ranking based on how nicely they fit into our definition of acceptable female demeanour.

TROY LAWRENCE/ THE VARSITY

Normative femininity

Writers such as Anne Sexton, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath are just a handful of the many brilliant women in literature who have suffered from disordered eating. As a response to patriarchal constrictions, their confessional writings turned their pain into stories and their psyches into vivid characters.

This brought about curiosity among readers, and created an entirely new genre. Their refusal of food was seen by many as a commitment to femininity, and the documentation of their accounts as products of creative genius. Anorexia reproduces itself in literature as an idolized character of discipline and ideal femininity.

Hollywood today displays vestiges of Victorian standards and Victorian expressions of eating disorders. With films monopolizing eating disorder narratives, we are only hearing a fraction of the story. Where does that leave bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder? Where does it leave those afflicted by eating disorders who don’t fit into the narrow model of an archetypal patient?

Dr. Allan S. Kaplan, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, explains the discrepancy with a general conception of the three eating disorders: “You can characterize the three eating disorders on a continuum of weight. Anorexics by definition are underweight; they have to be. Bulimics almost always are normal weight and it’s hard to know that someone has bulimia; it’s kind of a closeted illness. Binge-eating, because they’re binging and they’re not getting rid of the calories, they’re almost always obese.”

He says, “In our society, and especially the society that young people are drawn to — that can be fashion, modelling, show business — thinness is valued,” but when it comes to other eating disorders, “it’s private, and there’s a lot of shame associated with binge-eating and purging.”

The roots of hierarchy

Among patients, anorexia is often heavily defended as a life choice because it’s predicated on self-control. The ability to restrict is practically sacred, and many will go to great lengths to protect it, whereas bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder are viewed as embarrassing secrets.

“Psychotherapy is important as a cornerstone of treatment but establishing a trusting relationship with somebody with anorexia is not easy… They deny that they have an illness. That’s the first problem. How do you get somebody to engage in the treatment of a condition which they actually deny they have?” says Kaplan of the treatment process.

On the other hand, when it comes to bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder, “a person will come to you and say ‘I can’t stand the binging, it’s driving me crazy. I’ll do anything you want, just help me stop binging.’ It’s a very different mindset and much easier to connect with somebody.”

These illnesses are conceptualized on a spectrum of control replicated in pop culture. Women with bulimia are described as lacking in discipline, a sense of responsibility, and bodily integrity. Bingeing places them in a derogatory light, presenting them as helpless and at the mercy of their compulsions. On the other hand, anorexics have the ‘incredible’ ability to fight impulses. It’s like a superpower. We understand and demonize self-indulgence, but extreme self-control and self-denial? That fascinates us.

What often goes unmentioned is the inevitable psychological and physiological response to the stress of constantly under-eating. After fighting with a deficiency for so long, over half of anorexics find themselves experiencing bulimia and binge-eating disorder somewhere along the way. But this part of the journey is often missing in media. These one-sided narratives skew the reality of the illness, taking out chaos to maintain its ‘clean’ image.

Representations in pop culture

With decades of sweeping the severity of disordered eating under the rug and using it for character idiosyncrasies, this brings about the greater question: is pop culture even the right place for these stories?

“I think what you want to do is portray the illness accurately,” says Kaplan. “Most sufferers are women, but men do get anorexia nervosa. And they tend to be more difficult to treat and they tend to have a poorer outcome.”

Films such as Netflix’s recent To The Bone often place a white, pretty, popular young girl front and centre. Over time, anorexia begins to be mistaken for an exclusive illness. Although young females in Western countries occupy a greater percentage of the diagnostic pool, prevalence rates in non-Western countries have been on the rise, and up to a quarter of eating-disorder sufferers are male.

Men may account for only 10 per cent of eating disorder patients, but the stigma surrounding this condition is far greater for them, which results in many being underdiagnosed and undertreated. They face the challenge of limited resources for recovery, as most are geared toward women.

Men of the LGBTQ+ community were also found to be 10 times more likely to exhibit signs of disordered eating. Transgender individuals in particular are at a greater lifetime risk of developing eating disorders, especially those with low visual gender conformity. Yet these findings remain largely unknown, despite rising prevalence rates in these communities.

A heteronormative and rather misogynistic template exists in this tale. Somehow it became possible to be not white enough, or feminine enough, or straight enough to be taken seriously while having the same illness.

IRIS DENG/ THE VARSITY

Within the transgender community

Only in the last few decades has it become better understood that individuals who experience gender dysphoria are much more vulnerable to mental health issues, and only in recent years have eating disorders in the transgender community been studied critically.

Studies have shown that transgender people are far more dissatisfied with their bodies than cisgender individuals, regarding reproductive body parts or otherwise. A survey of just under 300,000 college students revealed staggering statistics: those who are transgender are four times more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, and twice as likely to show symptoms than their cisgender female counterparts. Transgender women tend to share the same reasoning for engaging in restrictive behaviors as cisgender females. Impacted by the same thinness imperative, their habits are used as a means of suppressing masculinity to conform to female beauty ideals.

Much of the existing academic literature on this particular topic has been on transgender women, and the social and cultural parallels drawn to cisgender females. However, a specific case study from 2013 detailed the experiences of an adolescent transgender male who suffered from anorexia nervosa. After his diagnosis, he admitted that he had engaged in restrictive habits to get rid of the feminine features that he disliked on his own body.

Immense body dissatisfaction does not have to be associated with a desire for thinness to manifest in disordered eating patterns. When individuals feel that their own body is foreign to them, they may resort to the most accessible way of modifying their body shape. Those who have yet to undergo hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery find that their bodies are the primary source of their suffering, and that the misalignment of their sex and gender identity causes them significant distress.

Whose story?

We need to reject false narratives, and we need to tell the whole story. Recognize that maladaptive behaviours don’t discriminate, that anyone can fall victim to them, and that there is nothing poetic or brilliant about eating disorders. Depicting them as such is unethical.

Pervasive shame can result in a fear of stigmatization, preventing bulimia nervosa and binge-eating sufferers from seeking help at all. Anorexia nervosa must be removed from romantic, sexualized contexts to begin deconstructing the hierarchy, and for all eating disorders to be seen as devastating as they are. Currently, these illnesses are organized in a way that is destructive to patient recovery.

Kaplan explains that it’s important to ask about the agenda of media productions for eating disorders. “Is it to portray information accurately or is it to be sensationalistic or to attract attention? That’s two different agendas there,” he says. “It’s more often the latter than the former and it’s a problem because misinformation is portrayed and talked about, then there is often a glamorization and it’s often described as having an achievement.”

Eating disorders are complicated amalgamations of cultural, environmental, and biological factors. “If it was just an issue of being affected by the culture, you’d have way more people than just one per cent of the adult female population evidencing the disorder,” explains Kaplan.

While it may not cause dramatic increases in prevalence rates, communicating the right information is still vital. Poor representation only robs marginalized groups of the attention and resources they need, and glamorization is offensive to the truth of mental health struggles.

We’ve had a long history of getting it all wrong. But that doesn’t mean disordered eating is impossible to talk about. Narratives need be to rid of conditions marking who can or can’t be afflicted by eating disorders. People of colour suffer from eating disorders, and so do men, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people of all socioeconomic classes and ages.

Hollywood can’t, and shouldn’t be the only setting where conversations about disordered eating take place. As for where discussions on the U of T campus are occurring, Kaplan comments, “I think if it comes from anywhere, it’s often the student body who initiates it. Should the faculty be more aware of it? Absolutely.” Kaplan believes material on disordered eating “should be part of a course in health regardless of what faculty that happens to be in, whether it’s kinesiology, whether it’s medicine, whether it’s psychology… I think there needs to be an increased awareness of these conditions.”

Students and storytellers have the responsibility to search for the right language to discuss this illness, without contributing to the culture that perpetuates it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wellness Portal established to help graduate students find resources, services

Mental health services, academic support, supervisor relationship tips included

Wellness Portal established to help graduate students find resources, services

The School of Graduate Studies (SGS) and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) collaborated to create a Graduate Wellness Portal to provide information on the resources and services available for graduate students.

Through this portal, graduate students can find mental health services, academic support, and resources to assist with supervisor relationships. The website also includes a directory of U of T and Toronto community resources, student-supervisor resources including a supervision tip sheet, and a list of frequently asked questions.

Luc De Nil, Acting Dean of Graduate Studies, said that the SGS and UTGSU are hoping that the portal will allow students to “avoid situations where stress has impacted them so much that they run into difficulties with their academic work because we all know that early intervention, early support is the best way to support our students.”

UTGSU Executive Sophie McGibbon-Gardner said that the UTGSU feels that “this is a good resource to help graduate students navigate these issues, especially in the wake of the mandated leave of absence policy.”

The recent passing of the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy allows U of T to place a student on a non-punitive leave if their mental health poses a risk to themselves or others, or if they are unable“to fulfill the essential activities required to pursue their program.” The policy was passed in June to much backlash from students.

The portal was started as a way to solve the lack of cohesion that existed, explained De Nil, saying that “students know the resources are there [and] that resources are available to them, but they do not quite know how to find them or how to start accessing them or who to contact.”

With U of T’s growing number of international students, the portal also includes information on off-campus services that offer support in multiple languages.

Some of the resources available are SGS Wellness Counsellors, a series of Coping Skills and Supervision Workshops, and G2G Peer Advisors at the Graduate Conflict Resolution Centre.

UTGSU members can also assist other graduate students with advice, information, and representation when experiencing academic and/or administrative difficulties, including problems with supervisors, departments, or the university, if students would prefer to speak with other graduate students.

The SGS will also be looking to have accessibility advisors available specifically for graduate students, according to De Nil.

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

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

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

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

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

Code of Conduct versus UMLAP: a false dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The list of concerns has no end

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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