In the Spotlight: Judith Friedland

Occupational science, therapy professor emerita discusses student mental health, her research

In the Spotlight: Judith Friedland

“Do no harm” are the first words that come to Dr. Judith Friedland’s mind when asked about the role of universities in student mental health. Friedland, a professor emerita in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, has had a career at the university which spans decades. As a student, Friedland earned her occupational and physical therapy diploma in 1960, her BA in 1976, an MA in 1982, and a PhD in 1989. As a professor, she eventually became chair of her department from 1991–1999.

She sat down with The Varsity to talk about her research, her time at U of T, and how both relate to student mental health.

Researching students, universities, mental health

In 2014, Friedland co-wrote a study that looked into the connections between universities and students on mental wellness, and included a sampling of a small number of university students with self-identified mental health problems. “This study provides some evidence that listening to the student voice can help universities to lead the change; to take ownership and responsibility for the well-being of all of their students, including those with mental health problems,” concluded the authors.

During the next year, then-U of T Ombudsperson Joan Foley recommended to Governing Council that a new non-coercive mental health policy be implemented. This suggestion was the origin of the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP), which, three years later, allows the university to unilaterally place students on mandated leave if they exhibit mental health problems that are deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others. A little over a year after the policy’s passing, student mental health has come to the forefront of activism, with new student groups organizing protests against the UMLAP amidst four deaths on campus in the past two years.

Especially relevant now, Friedland’s research drew from her own experiences as a professor, personally working with students who went through challenges at home, felt outside pressure from their families, or felt other pressures from school or work. This led to a focus in her work to “corroborate some of those issues that [she] knew about from experience.”

Friedland talked about the importance of the relationship between professors and students: “I was very conversant [as a professor] with the fact of how many students had mental health issues as well as mental [illnesses].”

Students seeking help from professors in the form of extensions, or simply wishing to talk, need a connection with professors: “[if] there isn’t that kind of empathetic relationship, not necessarily emotional support, but just good old-fashioned empathy and understanding, then right away that student’s got a barrier toward getting help and is being stigmatized to some extent,” said Friedland.

“My guess is there’s still a number of people around teaching these days who don’t really believe totally in the stress that a lot of students are under.”

A culture supporting poor mental health

U of T’s stressful culture, coupled with increases in financial and housing insecurity, all play into why Friedland believes that mental health has been on the forefront of many students’ minds. However, she maintains that the literature is still unclear and undecided on concrete connections. “I would like to see more emphasis put on how the university can deal with some of that,” commented Friedland on the ways in which universities can support students.

On the UMLAP, Friedland admits to not being completely caught up on the discourse, but did comment on the perception that the policy is punitive through its wording.

“Just the word ‘mandated’ somehow sounded very punitive as opposed to helpful… In mental health and occupational therapy and psychiatric work, we talk about a therapeutic alliance,” Friedland said in explaining her hesitations about the policy. “Whoever is trying to help you, makes an alliance with you, and so you’re moving forward together… that terminology that it’s ‘mandated,’ it sounds like something so arbitrary.”

Opinion: It’s not enough to simply link to resources, mental health care must begin in classrooms

We must re-orient academics to include mental health education

Opinion: It’s not enough to simply link to resources, mental health care must begin in classrooms

There is more behind U of T’s high rankings than meets the eye.

Despite the university’s rising reputation of high academic excellence, student well-being is plummeting. The university is drastically failing to take effective steps toward combatting the urgent mental health crisis. We need a critical re-evaluation, re-calculation, and reformation of U of T’s mental health policy and the administration’s approaches to student well-being.

Following the fourth death of a student on the grounds of UTSG in less than two years, students continue to tirelessly ask the question, “How do you sleep at night?”  to administration, an admonition and a plea to raise alarms that should have sounded off far sooner.

Which resources are currently available to students in crisis?

The Health & Wellness website lists resources such as workshops, emergency hotlines, and information on counselling appointments. This digital space is one of the main places where mental health resources at U of T are accessibly described.

However, the website’s vision to improve mental health resources, exemplified by its comment that, “We all have a role to play in mental wellness on campus,” comes off as blank statements lacking proactive steps to back them up.

Without an effective path to actually move toward improving mental wellness, circulating a website link of resources for the sake of claiming that there are resources doesn’t do much for making a change. 

Simply noting that ‘the resources are there’ is not enough. Making resources available on an online or physical platform only begins to take on meaning when students who require help begin to feel like they can engage and reach out to the resources in front of them.

Access to mental health resources and tools is something that every academic institution should have, but many are lacking. Mental health resources are, in theory, present on campus grounds, but they are not actively and visibly accessible to students.

The reality is that U of T’s administration is a reactive, rather than proactive, administration.

It’s playing a game of catch-up with its students when it comes to opening up the conversation on mental health. The third phase of the Mental Health Task Force makes this clear. It consists of a summary of what students have long tried to communicate to administration.

Discussions of mental health must be integrated into the various structures that affect the daily lives of students — such as classrooms — instead of separate structures outside of the academic scope of the university. They need to become a part of the university instead of something separate from it.

In a large institution like U of T, resources must trickle down into program and classroom-oriented designs, instead of waiting for students to reach out of their own volition.

While it is recognized that our professors and teaching assistants are not our therapists or counsellors, there is nothing wrong with ensuring that educators are able to identify signs and symptoms of student distress as a part of the internal structure and design of specific academic programs. In the kaleidoscopic maze that is U of T, mental health awareness and discussion must migrate from the closed doors of administration into the classrooms where students are present.   

In a university where students have familiarized themselves with a toxic mindset that equates stress to success, the harmful academic culture must be remoulded.

Students can no longer stand as just a number that either stays or gets excluded from the system based on a calculated grade. As expressed by Guelph University’s approaches to mental health and commitment toward taking proactive steps to supporting the mental well-being of students, we must adopt a whole-person view of students when addressing the mental health crisis. This is especially true at a university like U of T, whose large population makes it easy to feel like just another number.

Living behind the shadow of academic success that solely focuses on U of T’s well-renowned ranking amongst other universities blatantly ignores the personal needs of students that live beyond the headlines of “top [university] in Canada.” Moreover, it sends a message of sheer ignorance that silences the voices of students who are making powerful pleas for change in the way the university externalizes mental health resources.

The personal concerns that are impacting students’ day-to-day lives as members of an academic institution must become an essential institutional priority instead of a side issue that is discussed every time a student dies.

The mental health issue on campus is obvious. U of T can send around links to resources such as Good2Talk, Health & Wellness counselling, and different phone numbers to call. But the administration needs to realize that this is not about resources and a long list of phone numbers. This is about structures that have allowed mental health problems to persist on campus, and how they must be re-evaluated and rebuilt.

Mélina Lévesque is a fourth-year Anthropology and Political Science student at Victoria College.

Opinion: U of T needs to address student opposition to the UMLAP

Lack of acknowledgement from administration is hurtful and dismissive

Opinion: U of T needs to address student opposition to the UMLAP

On October 24, students stood outside Simcoe Hall in solidarity as a Governing Council meeting took place inside. This was the second time since September that students gathered in response to the university’s continued lack of policy changes regarding mental health issues, both for student inclusiveness in decision-making processes and general disregard of student well-being on campus.

There is a lack of open communication between the student body and Governing Council. The valid concerns of students are not being addressed — and we have had enough.

Time and again, student organizations have tried to create an open dialogue with university administration. Following a year of mental health protests and discussions, student activists released a report titled “Nothing About Us Without Us.” The report is a well-researched and direct statement that highlights mental health resources that need improving, policies that need to be changed, as well as long and short-term recommendations to benefit student wellness.

As discussed at the rally in front of Simcoe Hall, the recommendations outlined in the report have not yet been adequately addressed, and the lack of action from administration has been interpreted as hurtful and dismissive. Students should have a say in the policies that affect them, and if the university continues to exclude students in these decisions it will only worsen the divide between administrators and the student body.

A poignant example of this is the highly contested university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP), which allows the administration to place students on a leave from their studies if their mental health is determined to pose a threat to themselves or others. Understandably, this policy was one of the main topics of discussion during the rally.

“Cut the crap, repeal UMLAP,” was the catchiest chant of the gathering.

Protestors were able to communicate with a few students who were attending the meeting inside. According to these students, the council reacted to these chants by saying that the opposition to the UMLAP was not backed with evidence. The university’s ombudsperson also recently doubled down on UMLAP, causing understandable backlash.

The UMLAP works reactively. The administration is shirking its responsibility to provide preventative mental health services and fix ineffective systems. This policy does little for students seeking help. If a student is forced to leave school, being left to fend for themselves can further harm their mental health and intensify suicidal thoughts.

This policy may claim to help students, but, as discussed at the rally, it only makes matters worse. Individuals are potentially less inclined to share their struggles with the university in fear of being placed on a mandated leave.

The UMLAP fails to effectively accommodate various student experiences, and students will continue to voice their concerns on this topic until a change is made.

The decisions made by Governing Council impact each and every person on campus, and the community that students have built around solidarity and genuine care for one another is inspiring and powerful. The university cannot ignore this resistance forever.

Sonia Uppal is a third-year Equity Studies student at St. Michael’s College.

U of T campus groups call for ombudsperson’s public apology

University-mandated leave of absence policy at the crux of backlash

U of T campus groups call for ombudsperson’s public apology

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

Following a contentious Governing Council meeting on October 24, U of T student groups have released strong condemnations of U of T Ombudsperson Dr. Ellen Hodnett’s remarks on mental health activism. The student groups criticize Hodnett’s expressed support for the controversial university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP) as well as her comment that activists have unfairly used recent apparent suicides on campus to criticize the policy.

The comments have prompted the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and the U of T Mental Health Policy Council (MHPC), a newly created advocacy group, to call for Hodnett’s public apology and open discussions on her removal.

Background on the UMLAP

The issue arose when Hodnett presented her report on the UMLAP. The controversial policy, approved in June 2018, allows the university to place students on a leave of absence if they exhibit severe mental health problems that the university feels pose a potential risk of serious harm to themselves or others. The policy is only meant to be used after all other accommodations have been exhausted.

The UMLAP was passed amidst fierce opposition from students and has been the subject of continued criticism. The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released an open letter in the run up to the policy’s approval, expressing its concern about how the UMLAP could “result in discrimination on the basis of mental health disability contrary to the Human Rights Code.” The policy was revised after the OHRC’s letter but students remained firmly in opposition.

This policy was specifically recommended by the Office of the Ombudsperson. In her role, Hodnett reviews university mandated leave cases.

Hodnett’s report

Hodnett addressed the Governing Council following statements on campus mental health from student representatives. She expressed how proud she was of the UMLAP, saying that it provides “extreme care, diligence, respectfulness, and compassion” to the students whose cases have been reviewed under the policy.

She maintained that the policy is evidence-based and fair, in opposition to the continuing resistance toward the policy, which she asserts is based on misinformation.

In an email to The Varsity, Hodnett specified that she sees this misinformation being widely circulated via social media. Her concern is that students will be deterred from seeking help under the UMLAP due to its widespread online criticism and encourages “everyone to actually read the Policy.”

During the Governing Council meeting, the comment that perhaps drew the most ire from students was Hodnett’s claim that recent campus deaths have been used as a “vehicle to link students’ purported fears of seeking mental health services with the mandated leave policy.”

Online statements

Immediately following the Governing Council meeting, the UTSU released a statement criticizing Hodnett’s remarks, followed closely by a statement published by the MHPC in solidarity. Both called on Hodnett to issue a public apology.

The UTSU condemned Hodnett’s comments for being “offensive” and “belittling.” It sees this as an example of the university administration not listening to its student body.

In a direct address to Hodnett, the UTSU wrote, “The fact that you told those at this meeting that you are ‘proud’ to be part of a policy that has been criticized by the Ontario Human Rights Commission and has served as an active detriment to students seeking mental health support on this campus, speaks volumes about your views on listening to us.”

The MHPC, in its statement, found Hodnett’s comments to be delegitimizing for students with mental illness and their lived experiences. They see the UMLAP as institutionalizing “U of T’s right to force a student experiencing mental illness to lose their student status, services, and housing.”

Campus groups speak out

UTSU President Joshua Bowman and other members of the UTSU said that they were so appalled by what they heard from Hodnett that they began writing their online statement during that very meeting.

In a written statement to The Varsity, Bowman went on to laud the efforts of student activists in fighting for better mental health services and found Hodnett’s remarks to be disparaging against the good work that has been put into advocating for support from the university.

“There is a mental health crisis on our campus and the fact that Dr. Hodnett stated that students grieving the loss of a classmate and community member are doing so in a politically motivated manner against UMLAP is a testament to the dispassionate nature of our university.”

Bowman’s disappointment isn’t solely reserved for Hodnett. He claimed that other meeting attendees, including some in administrative positions, were smirking and dismissive of the statements presented by student representatives at the beginning of the council meeting.

The UTSU’s official position on the UMLAP is that it is a damaging policy. In response to Hodnett’s claim that students have created a culture of fear surrounding the policy, Bowman instead posits that the fear on campus comes from the policy itself.

He claims that this fear is “perpetuated by a policy that saw little to no student consultation and ultimately makes students scared to go to Health and Wellness to seek the care they require.”

In addition to calling for an apology, Bowman wouldn’t find it unreasonable for the university to look into whether Hodnett is suited to her role as ombudsperson in light of her comments.

The MHPC took issue with Hodnett’s statements in part due to her role of ombudsperson — an independent and impartial position meant to ensure that the rights of U of T community members are protected.

“Hodnett’s annual report accuses dedicated mental health advocates on campus of spreading misinformation and intentionally exploiting recent student deaths — a partial and wildly insulting charge to level at the university’s students,” the MHPC wrote in an email to The Varsity.

For the MHPC, its top priority is “to see the UMLAP undergo a drastic rewrite or be repealed entirely.” It places high importance on ensuring that new policies are developed alongside students in order to “remove the structural and implicit barriers that prevent students from seeking help.”

University and Ombudsperson’s response

In a statement to The Varsity, Hodnett affirmed that she stands by her every word.

She wanted to remind members of the U of T community that “the Policy went through extensive consultations and was approved at every level of governance, with active involvement by students throughout, before it was implemented.”

Even though students were consulted throughout the approval process, opposition to the policy contends that this consultation was not meaningful. Indeed, students had criticized the timing and accessibility of the consultations in the lead-up to the policy’s approval one year ago.

Doubling down on the comments made during the Governing Council meeting, Hodnett claims that there is no evidence that the UMLAP is a harmful policy. In fact, she says there is evidence to the contrary — and that the UMLAP is doing “just what it was intended to do.”

According to U of T, the policy has been used eight times in the last year and the university says that in “almost all of the cases” the student affected by the policy has returned or is in the process of returning to classes.

However, it has acknowledged that considerable concern exists regarding the policy.

“We’ve heard students’ concerns that the policy could discourage individuals from using the supports available through the university and we are working to counter the perception that seeking mental health support will somehow trigger the leave process.”

It reiterated that the policy is only meant to be used when other accommodations have been found to be unsuccessful. The university claims that, “this policy is not intended to be punitive, and our experience with the policy demonstrates that.”

The ups and downs of having bipolar disorder at U of T

My experience of missed exams, a GPA drop, and baking box-mix cupcakes

The ups and downs of having bipolar disorder at U of T

Content warning: discussions of self-harm.

The lamp on my desk flickered and glowed, making the faint buzzing sound it always does when it’s getting too hot. It was my first year at U of T, at 9:00 pm on a Thursday. I was studying in my room in res and getting ready to go to sleep when suddenly I felt it: mania. Clear, euphoric, excited, and irresponsible mania.

So what do I do? Pop an antipsychotic and start doing my makeup. An hour later, I’m bouncing around in a crop-top outside, waiting for my coke-doing friend-of-friends to hang out with me.

A girl walking by asks me if I’m okay and I nod excitedly; oh boy, I am better than okay. But just when the high of my own mental illness is hitting its peak, the meds I took kick in and I start to feel sleepy.

Seroquel, an atypical anti-psych with the proposed slogan: “You can’t have delusions if you’re unconscious.” I end up asleep back in my room, and the next day, I’m no longer crazy.

I’m that Asian girl in your lecture, the one with the bad bio-gel nails and the Muji notebook, rummaging through her purse for a pen, and asking the prof thoughtless questions that were already answered on the syllabus.

I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder at the age of 18 the spring before I came to U of T. After seven months of my first depressive episode, in which I did little besides lie in bed all day, self-harm, and watch The Office over and over again, I was hit with the reward of mania.

At first I assumed that I was just feeling happier. “Finally,” I thought. After months of chronic emptiness that didn’t seem to get better, no matter how much fruit I ate, the sudden desire to get up and do things seemed like a blessing.

Yet, my happiness came back too strong, and 48 sleepless hours later I was baking box-mix cupcakes in my grandma’s apartment at 3 am.

Where depression was one self-hating thought a minute, mania was one hundred thoughts a second. All at the same time, they spin a web of ideas and beliefs that, to this day, made me think I had reached enlightenment.

Mania is a wave. It is the world glittering, the voices in your head. It is chaos, sunshine, strawberry sundaes, buying a cellphone on impulse, and climbing on the back of a truck in traffic. It’s kissing a stranger, trying to learn Mandarin, making a birdhouse out of popsicle sticks, getting angry, getting paranoid, scaring your friends, scaring your family, scaring the strangers on the bus, and scaring yourself.

That’s the other side of the coin, isn’t it? After months of depression, the wanting to die, the trying to die, and the shame and regret of all your manic actions, there’s the psych ward with its pale blue walls, single-ply toilet paper, puzzles with missing pieces, and G-rated DVD collections.

Each day, the same watery mashed potatoes served on plastic trays. The missed exams, the emails back and forth with Accessibility Services, the profs who say they’ve “accommodated you more than enough,” and the drop in GPA.

That was the winter of my illness: watching snow fall from a hospital rec room, and my mom bringing me assignments during visiting hours.

It’s a lonely feeling, being sick. Even being manic, there’s rarely someone who’s manic with you, who sees the world the way you do. The way people look at you hurts — with fear or confusion, or like you’re stupid, like a little kid.

But the good thing about mania is, in that moment, it doesn’t have to matter.

Sure, with meds and therapy, I can be relatively healthy 80 per cent of the time, working at a lab and highlighting a textbook that I’m planning to sell, and only depressed 15 per cent of the time. Oh boy, that shit sucks, but that last five per cent is that magical mania.

You want to know why I love it, even though it’s terrifying? Because when I’m up there, when I’m so high that I’m almost a god, everything seems so clearly stupid, like a bad joke.

I don’t care if I look crazy, or my eyes are big, or I’m talking too much, because nothing I do can embarrass me anymore. Because life is this silly, happy game that we get to play over and over, and because the rules are make-believe and we can do whatever we want. And then I put on my headphones and, goddamn it, the music sounds so good.

It’s like everything is a miracle. And yeah, sure, I’m afraid of myself, but I’m too happy to care. I’m afraid of myself but I’m not afraid of anything else; I’m invincible.

Despite all this, I wouldn’t choose to have bipolar disorder. I don’t think anyone would choose to have bad things happen to them. But we’re all dealt our cards in life, and I guess these are mine.

I wish I had answers, or that there was some moral to all of this, but there’s none. This is my life, and I’m learning to be okay with it.

To everyone with a mental illness reading this right now: you’re not alone, and it’s not your fault. There might be people who don’t understand, but there are lots who do, and who will help.

It’s Halloween season! Let’s buy costumes and get drunk. You can come over to my place and watch a bad movie, or we can lie on our backs in a park and look up at Toronto’s only visible star, and maybe even make a wish on an airplane cutting across the sky. You can show me photos of your dog on your phone.

So the next time you see that Asian girl with the bad bio-gel nails and the Muji notebook, make sure to say hi. She’d really like to be your friend.

U of T hosts Minds Redefined conference in response to mental health crisis

Guest speakers, workshops held at September event

U of T hosts Minds Redefined conference in response to mental health crisis

Content warning: This article contains discussions of suicide.

Mental health is a topic of paramount concern at U of T. The past academic year has incited a change in the way students, faculty, and administration perceive and speak out about mental illness.

Despite the mounting change, U of T remains in a mental health crisis. The Faculty of Arts & Science responded by appointing Chad Jankowski to the newly-created role of Mental Health Programs Officer in July. He spoke at the inaugural Minds Redefined mental health conference at the university, aimed at fostering discussion on the topic of mental health in the Faculty of Arts & Science. 

The conference took place at the Chestnut Conference Centre on September 17, as an eight-hour symposium boasting speakers Michael Landsberg and Margaret Trudeau, together with a plethora of students and faculty hosting workshops on individual wellness. 

Less than a third of the conference’s attendees appeared to be undergraduate students, which may have stemmed from the event being held at 12:00–8:00 pm on a Tuesday.

Keynote speaker Michael Landsberg speaks about reducing stigma around seeking help 

As Jankowski introduced the first keynote speaker, a figure nodded diligently at each credential mentioned. Eventually this figure chimed in, “You know, this is kind of like the start of an [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting,” getting a laugh from the audience. He was Michael Landsberg, a mental health advocate, ambassador for the Bell’s Let’s Talk program, and founder of the charity Sick Not Weak, which aims to redefine the public perception of mental illness.

What struck the audience was Landsberg’s candidness about his depression. He began by recounting his ongoing struggle with depression, describing the illness as insidious. He talked about his lowest point on November 24, 2008, where he came to the realization: “I understand why people take their lives.”

He underscored that mental illness is a debilitating, sometimes fatal, sickness of the brain — one that is hardly talked about in open and effective discourse. Characterizing the stigma toward depression, he asked, “How is it that in 2019, when the leading cause of death in some age groups is suicide, that we still don’t say the word?”

Further on, Landsberg talked about the enigmatic relief of being diagnosed. After visiting a psychiatrist and confirming that he had depression, he recounted a feeling of validation, even one of happiness. To resolve this paradox, he asserted that “if you don’t have a diagnosis, then you can’t have treatment.”

This is one of the central themes he wanted to hit home. Ultimately, in experiencing mental illness, seeking professional help is imperative to beginning the journey of recovery, noted Landsberg. 

One striking aspect about Landsberg’s speech was the breadth of comedy that it boasted. Following the trope of the depressed comedian, he mitigated the heaviness of the themes being discussed with his quick wit. For instance, he used the made-up illness “healthy brain-itis” to discuss the common stigmas associated with depression, propagated by those who haven’t encountered it.

Keynote speaker Margaret Trudeau discusses coming to terms with mental illness

Trudeau was a whirlwind of a speaker, whisking the audience through anecdotes upon anecdotes about her struggle with bipolar disorder. She is a mental health advocate, as well as a bestselling author of four books. She was also the wife of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau until their divorce, and mother of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The coming-of-age, ‘free-spirited’ student can find parts of themselves in her biography, amongst recounts of her experimentation with party drugs and love affairs with a certain Kennedy brother.

The pivotal theme of Trudeau’s speech was coming to terms with mental illness. She asserted that she spent a lot of her life in denial, choosing to be unaware that she had an illness.

This is particularly relevant for students, who often find it difficult to see the difference between the struggle that comes with being a student and that of mental illness. It is hard to characterize mental stress in times of academic stress, insomnia in times of all-nighters, and eating disorders in the ramen-fueled times of disordered eating. 

Trudeau emphasized that “there is so much shame in being mentally ill” due to the amount of stigma attached to it. Accepting that mental illness is a sickness — and normalizing the reception of treatment — is an early step to alleviating the mental health crisis at U of T. 

Is this response by U of T enough? 

Collective student action in response to U of T’s mental health crisis displayed itself last March, with the formation of the “How Many Lives?” student movement calling for U of T to better address mental health and suicides on campus. The advocacy group held a silent protest in response to the lack of action on the administration’s part, after students alleged that the third known suicide within the past two years was inadequately addressed by the university.

While the conference demonstrated that the university is acknowledging the need to speak about mental health and provided wellness resources to students, it did not address more structural barriers.

These include the skepticism associated with accessibility services, and the long wait times and referrals necessary to obtain a psychiatric diagnosis at the Health and Wellness Centre — one of the key points both keynote speakers stressed in the process to get effective treatment.

Such barriers have been discussed by U of T student advocacy groups, who continue to push for a stronger response by U of T’s administration in response to the mental health crisis. 

If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

U of T students, city advocates call on federal parties to invest in Toronto’s mental health

Advocates call for $300 million yearly investment in Toronto’s mental health services

U of T students, city advocates call on federal parties to invest in Toronto’s mental health

Content warning: Discussions of suicide.

Advocates from across Toronto, including executives of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), called on the federal parties to commit to expanding the city’s funding for mental health and addiction services.

At an October 10 press conference at City Hall, they specifically asked for $300 million per year in mental health service investments in Toronto. The community members included city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, as well as representatives of Gerstein’s Crisis Centre and the Canadian Mental Health Association Toronto.

“We know that 20 per cent of Canadians experience mental health and addiction issues,” said Wong-Tam at the conference. She remarked that the city needs the federal government’s support to expand its mental health services in order to better care for its growing population.

Joshua Bowman, UTSU President, further underscored the impact of the mental health crisis at U of T. He noted that 46 per cent of postsecondary students have reported feeling too depressed to function, and 65 per cent reporting persisting overwhelming anxiety.

“These aren’t just statistics — these are friends, these are family members. These are our classmates,” he said. “This is a reality that students at the University of Toronto have grown all too accustomed to.”

In an interview with The Varsity, Bowman recalled that Wong-Tam invited UTSU representatives to speak at the conference, as part of her call was for expanded mental health funding specifically at postsecondary institutions.

Mayor John Tory endorsed the advocacy efforts later that day, writing that he joins them in “calling on the federal parties to commit to meaningful investments… to address [the] growing mental health and addictions crises.”

Responses from federal parties

A Green Party spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that the Greens would commit $1 billion annually to community treatment programs for mental health, addiction, and autism in Canada.

The Greens would also mark $100 million for suicide prevention, and $100 million to address the opioid crisis, according to the spokesperson. It is further committed to providing pharma care.

A Liberal Party spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that it will “begin negotiations with the provinces and territories to establish clear national standards for access to mental health services.”

The New Democratic Party and the Conservatives did not respond to The Varsity’s requests for comment.

“You have power that students don’t”: protests continue as students demand better mental health support

Calls for repeal of university-mandated leave policy, majority representation in policy consultations at Business Board

“You have power that students don’t”: protests continue as students demand better mental health support

As part of a continuing effort by the U of T Mental Health Policy Council (UTMH), an advocacy group created in the wake of a student death in September, students protested outside of Simcoe Hall during a meeting of the Governing Council’s Business Board on October 7. Speakers included student representatives from the Black Students’ Association, Leap UofT, independent student activists, and local elected officials.

Bhutilla Karpoche, MPP Parkdale–High Park, spoke at the rally in support of greater access to mental health care: “In the past year, I have listened to young people, listened to families, listened to frontline workers, and the state of our mental health care system in this province is shameful.”

Even with the resources that are available, mental health support “is virtually non-existent for young people. It is a group that has been completely ignored,” said Karpoche. “We have to continue to organize so that we don’t just leave today’s rally and come back next time when there is another crisis.”

Chris Glover, MPP Spadina–Fort York, agreed with Karpoche, saying, “Absolutely, the university must do more to support mental wellness on this campus.”

He additionally criticized the provincial government’s cuts to education as being a factor in the rise of mental health issues. “Cost and access to education is an incredible stress on students,” said Glover.

Inside the Business Board meeting, four students were given speaking rights, though comments were heard from other students who attended the meeting.

One of the four students, Sarah Colbourn, appealed to the Business Board and its financial power at the university: “You have power that students don’t.”

She criticized the Boundless fundraising campaign, which raised $2.6 billion, while the university has only allocated $3 million in additional funding for mental health in the past three years.

“We are here because we are asking you to use your power and your position to enact the changes that we can’t,” said Colbourn. “It is clear from your public posturing and media stance that you have the money.”

She pointed out that between 2014 and 2019, the number of students registered with accessibility services with a mental illness as their primary impairment doubled. “But we have not seen the staff and funding capacities of those bodies double.”

A U of T spokesperson told The Varsity that the money has gone in part to double the number of accessibility counsellors.

“We are equally as concerned about the issues that you raised. We do need to do better when it comes to issues around anti-Black racism, when it comes to issues around mental health,” responded Kelly Hannah-Moffat, Vice President, Human Resources and Equity.

In an interview with The Varsity, Mercer Palmer, an organizer with UTMH and recent U of T graduate, explained what the protestors are demanding from the administration.

Their first demand is that the university accepts “students with the intention of having them graduate,” meaning that the university needs to provide better services for students’ mental and physical health. Secondly, they demand “serious policy change,” such as the repeal of the university-mandated leave of absence policy.

“The third demand is nothing about us without us,” he said, referencing the eponymous report put out by U of T students last April, where they demand majority representation in all mental health policy creation.

“We cannot allow the university to continue to make decisions on our behalf without consulting us.”

Editor’s note (November 3, 4:48 pm): This article has been updated to correct that the university allocated $3 million in additional funding, not standalone funding, to mental health services. U of T says that the money was spent in part to double the number of accessibility counsellors.