U of T faculty sign petition to address anti-Semitism on campus

Petition sent to president outlines five demands following dispute between Hillel and UTGSU

U of T faculty sign petition to address anti-Semitism on campus

Over 60 U of T professors have signed a petition to President Meric Gertler asking him to take action against anti-Semitism on campus. The petition was released on November 18, 2019, following an incident between Hillel UofT and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), where the union was accused of anti-Semitism. The petition authors say that Gertler has recently agreed to a meeting.

In November, the UTGSU’s former External Commissioner, Maryssa Barras, sent an email to Hillel in response to its request for support of its campaign to bring kosher food to campus. The email allegedly insinuated that the union would not support the campaign as a result of Hillel’s “pro-Israel” stance. The union has since apologized and Barras has resigned.

The text of the petition mainly criticizes the UTGSU, which, along with the incident over kosher food, has formally supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement since 2012. The BDS movement aims to economically sanction the state of Israel and boycott organizations that support it.

This is done in an effort to dissuade Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, which has been condemned as illegal by the United Nations. Some critics of the movement, including the petitioners, argue that the movement’s sole focus on Israel, and anti-Semitic comments made by the movement’s leadership, point toward anti-Semitic intentions behind the movement itself.

In an article published in the Canadian Jewish News (CJN) on February 7, Psychology Professor Stuart Kamenetsky and Dentistry Professor Howard Tenenbaum expressed disappointment at the lack of an expedient and adequate response from the university at the time, especially as Gertler had written an article on preventing anti-Semitism at U of T for CJN in September 2019.

Kamenetsky, the Undergraduate Director and Program Advisor of Psychology at UTM, said in an interview with The Varsity that Gertler’s article “promised that [anti-Semitism was] something that he really cares about and will do something about. So then when he never responded to us, we really felt that that was not a good-faith type of practice.” According to Kamenetsky, the president granted the group’s request for a meeting after the CJN article was published.

“We’re not even commenting on [whether] what the state of Israel does is right or wrong,” said Kamenetsky. “The bigger issue is that Jewish students on campus should not in any way, shape, or form be held responsible for what another country does.” He feels that “the BDS movement does just that.”

The petition lists five demands for the university to fulfill. The first two pertain to the UTGSU. The first one asks that the university condemn the union’s actions in the incident over the kosher food campaign. “We really felt that the University of Toronto should actually issue a clear statement condemning [about] what happened over there, and it really didn’t,” said Kamenetsky.

The second demand asks that the university investigate the UTGSU for any “policies and campaigns it utilizes that are informed by antisemitic or otherwise discriminatory worldviews.”

The third item, which requests the university’s help in providing more access to kosher food on campus, has already achieved partial success, as kosher food is now available at three locations in UTSG.

The next demand references a graduate student complaint against the UTGSU BDS committee through the university’s Complaint and Resolution Council for Student Societies (CRCSS), and asks that the university help expedite the complaint, alleging that the complaint “has been stymied at every turn.”

Lastly, the petition asks the university to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. Kamenetsky expects that if the university does adopt the IHRA definition, this “will really shut down BDS and many organizations [that we] now feel that are just a modern form of antisemitism.”

The IHRA defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Overall, Kamenetsky identified one of the main concerns of the petitioners as “that sense that if this goes unchecked at the University of Toronto, it will just bring about a bigger decline.”

In a statement to The Varsity, a spokesperson for the UTGSU’s BDS Caucus wrote, “The [BDS] movement has been clear and consistent about its goals, aims, and practices. It is unfortunate that supporters of Israeli apartheid remain committed to misinformation, at the expense of Palestinian liberation and international law.”

Going forward, the group hopes to add more signatures and increase the diversity of the signatories, as Kamenetsky noted they are mostly from the St. George campus and in the medical faculties.

U of T Media Relations wrote in a statement to The Varsity that “the President and senior administrators have reviewed the letter. The group has raised a number of concerns and the University is following up.”

Editor’s Note (February 25, 9:10 pm): This article has been updated to clarify wording around the BDS movement’s stance on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

“Cautiously optimistic”: student groups commend direction of mental health task force report, call for more action

Criticisms of university-mandated leave of absence policy, lack of student representation

“Cautiously optimistic”: student groups commend direction  of mental health task force report, call for more action

Since the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health released its recommendations on how to reform mental health services earlier this month, students groups have been vocal in expressing both support and disapproval of various aspects of the report.

Generally, the aspect of the task force’s report that received the most appreciation from student groups was the acknowledgement of a harmful university culture that does not prioritize student wellbeing. Student representatives remained critical of the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP), the removal of which was one of their biggest demands.

The report argued that students’ opinions about the policy were driven by misinformation, and that the university should keep UMLAP in place while working to counter the misconceptions about it.

The Varsity interviewed several student group representatives to see if the task force met students’ demands.

University of Toronto Students’ Union

Arjun Kaul, Vice-President, Operations for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), wrote to The Varsity, addressing areas of possible improvement for the report.

Kaul criticized the vague language in the report regarding the university’s culture of academic excellence. “I would like to see more specific ways of addressing the problematic nature of ‘academic rigour’ at the university, since this is usually a problem with department-specific solutions,” wrote Kaul. He further advocated for the introduction of “more expansive and efficient ways to make professors and instructors aware of the [problems]” students may face in a difficult academic environment.

He applauded the university’s decision to remove verification of illness forms and replace them with self-declared sick notes, an idea that the task force report found to have universal support. He also commended the task force’s recommendation to create a clearer policy on reporting student deaths by suicide, and informing the public about its methods.

Lastly, Kaul criticized the lack of student representation, one of the ongoing criticisms of the task force: “I know that they could have done this with better student representation.”

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union President Chemi Lhamo criticized the generalized nature of the task force, and a lack of relevant recommendations for the satellite campuses.

Lhamo noted that UTSC has a large population of racialized students, and “close to 70 per cent of students dependent on [Ontario Student Assistance Program],” in an email to The Varsity. “The numbers of student visits to our food centre continues to rise and they disproportionately represent women and international students.”

Lhmao expressed that although she was happy with the direction of the task force, she wants to wait and see how the recommendations are actually implemented.

“This report is a generalized report of the three campuses, however to address the concerns of UTSC students, you need to listen to UTSC students.”

University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union

Atif Abdullah, President of the Mississauga Students’ Union, echoed the same idea, noting that the report “failed to recognize the systems of oppression that play a vital factor in Student Mental Health and the ease of access for those coming from marginalized backgrounds.”

On what the report did well, Abdullah wrote to The Varsity that the administration acknowledged the need for a cultural change at the university to allow students to make mistakes. However, he criticized the report for not addressing concerns about the UMLAP.

“We look forward to continue pushing accessible academic policies; like the Self Assigned Illness Notes and the removal of subscription based services, structural changes like free education, challenging systems of oppression and empowering students to demand better mental health supports,” wrote Abdullah.

Students for Barrier-Free Access

Joshua Grondin, Chair of Students for Barrier-Free Access at U of T and former Vice-President University Affairs for the UTSU, described the new partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) as “terrifying” in a tweet.

He elaborated in an email to The Varsity that for students with mental health concerns, “CAMH also represents the forced hospitalization that we have had to experience, as well as the loss of autonomy that many disabled people have in making their own decisions.”

Grondin also criticized the treatment of UMLAP in the report, writing that, “Students have voiced their concerns at all stages of this policy’s development — we are fully aware of its scope and its applications.”

Mental Health Policy Council

In a response to the task force’s report from student activist Lucinda Qu on behalf of the Mental Health Policy Council (MHPC), she wrote that the MHPC is “cautiously optimistic.” She identified several positive recommendations of the task force, such as more diverse mental health service providers, more training for university staff, and increased case management support.

Its central complaint also centred around UMLAP, and a concern that “many key concerns raised by activists, student groups, and even the Ontario Human Rights Commission remain unaddressed.” Going forward, the MHPC expressed concern that the policies for reviewing UMLAP are not thorough enough, and that students might be under-consulted during review.

The MHPC had previously called for the dissolution of the task force on the grounds that it lacked significant student representation.

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

Administration accepts all recommendations from student mental health task force

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

Content warning: article contains mentions of suicide.

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

Background

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

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

The administration’s response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566

Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454

Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600

Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200

U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

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

Michael Sabia appointed as director of the Munk School

U of T alum is CEO of Canada’s second-largest pension fund

Michael Sabia appointed as director of the Munk School

On November 12, Governing Council’s Agenda Committee approved Michael Sabia’s appointment as Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, effective February 2020. Sabia will replace interim director Randall Hansen and serve in this role until 2024.

The Agenda Committee is a division of the Academic Board, one of three Governing Council boards at U of T, which “approves academic administrative appointments.”

Sabia earned his bachelor’s degree in political economy from U of T.

He currently serves as the president and CEO of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), which is Canada’s second largest pension fund. Sabia has served in this role since 2009.

Based in Québec, CDPQ’s assets under management have grown to over $325 billion, from $120 billion under Sabia’s leadership.

While his official mandate at CDPQ ends on March 31, 2021, he is leaving the company one year earlier than anticipated to join the Munk School.

U of T President Meric Gertler told The Globe and Mail that U of T was looking for someone who could bridge academic research in the Munk School with applications in public policy and global affairs.

“This appointment will allow me to continue working on issues that I think are particularly important in the current state of world affairs,” explained Sabia in a statement.

In a letter to students and staff at the Munk School, Gertler elaborated further, “The Dean of Arts & Science, the Provost, and I have also asked the Director to lead a consultative process within the University to determine whether establishing the Munk School as a free-standing Faculty would be a constructive step forward.”

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.

Mental health dominates first Governing Council meeting of the year

Presidential address, ombudsperson report, Spadina-Sussex residence were discussed

Mental health dominates first Governing Council meeting of the year

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

Governing Council’s first meeting of the academic year on October 24 was dominated by discussions of mental health, as student representatives were invited to speak on the topic. Representatives from the U of T Mental Health Policy Council, a newly-created advocacy group, were also in attendance at the meeting, though they were not given speaking rights.

The meeting also included the president’s address, the ombudsperson’s report, discussions on the planned Spadina-Sussex residence, and the Landmark Project.

Presidential address

The meeting began with President Meric Gertler’s address, which touched on the recent federal election and mental health. He noted that the university is working with the provincial government to outline the performance metrics that will be increasingly tied to U of T’s funding. On mental health, Gertler said, “We’ve heard from those who say that we have not done enough, and we welcome suggestions on how we can do better.” He pointed to the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, as well as the Expert Panel on Undergraduate Student Educational Experience as actions that the university has already taken.

“U of T is well known for its culture of excellence and we take tremendous pride in that,” wrote Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regher in her report on mental health. “You’ve just heard about our wonderful rankings, but our community has rightly reminded us [that] we also have to be mindful of the need to create a supportive community for one another.”

Mental health

Student representatives from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) all addressed the council. They shared many of the same demands, asking for more academic forgiveness, better access to counseling, and the repeal of the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP).

The UTSU’s Vice-President, Operations, Arjun Kaul, spoke on U of T’s competitive environment. “The culture of excellence that the university cultivates is what harms student mental health most,” said Kaul. He criticized the limited number of spots available for same-day counselling, and called for more funding to the Health & Wellness Centre, calling its wait times “abysmal.”

Joint speakers from the UTMSU and the UTGSU criticized the university’s fee structure, which places a financial burden on some students who take a reduced course load and recieve financial aid, and advocated for a course-by-course tuition structure.

A group of mental health protestors remained outside of Simcoe Hall for the duration of the meeting.

Report of the ombudsperson

The university’s ombudsperson, Ellen Hodnett, gave her report, speaking strongly in favour of the UMLAP.
“I was honoured to be asked to review the cases of the eight students to whom the policy was applied in its first year of implementation,” said Hodnett of the policy.

“I use the word honoured purposefully. In my 44 years here, I have never been prouder to be associated with the University of Toronto, seeing the extreme care, diligence, respectfulness, and compassion with which the policy was applied [in each case].”

She criticized the “misinformation” that she said is being “widely circulated…  to use the suicides as a vehicle to link students’ reported fears of seeking mental health services with the mandated leave policy.”

After the meeting, the UTSU released a statement asking Hodnett to issue a formal apology. The statement calls her comments on the UMLAP “offensive and wrong,” and says that they “serve as a way of belittling students and further [emphasize] the ongoing issue of the administration not listening to its students throughout the entire policy-making process.” It criticized her attitude as being demeaning toward the student protestors, and pointed out that a draft of the policy was criticized by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Hodnett also proposed recommendations from her role as ombudsperson. She suggested an ancillary fee system for students that are on a voluntary leave, which would allow them to access university services even though they are not enrolled in full or part-time studies.

Her last recommendation was on analyzing the nature of science labs as “fertile ground for harassment, bullying, and intimidation,” to which Regher responded that the university was undertaking a “Healthy Labs Initiative” which will provide resources for creating a positive lab environment.

Spadina-Sussex residence

UTSU President Joshua Bowman spoke in favour of the new residence that has been in the works since 2014, but ultimately urged Governing Council to consider “affordability and accessibility.”

“Many commuter students choose to commute out of financial necessity,” said Bowman to the council. “We can’t continue promoting the benefits of living in residence while failing to work toward financial options that are accessible to all students.” He highlighted the low amount of accessible rooms in residences across campus, even as the Spadina-Sussex residence is planned to have 44 accessible rooms — 23 dormitory rooms and 21 four-bedroom suites.

Members of the Governing Council expressed their desire for the university to plan for more than the known number of accessible spaces needed in order to create a welcoming environment for students with accessibility needs. The motion to approve the project in principle passed unanimously.

Landmark Project

Two motions were passed on the Landmark Project, a proposal which aims to make major changes to the landscape of the front campus area at UTSG to create a “greener, more walkable and accessible campus.” The first motion passed confirmed U of T’s commitment to the Landmark Project in principle, including the proposed below-ground parking lot. The second motion approved in principle, was a project for a geothermal system under King’s College Circle, which will conserve heat in the summer for use during winter.


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.

“How do you sleep at night?”: students confront admin on mental health

President Gertler, Vice-Provost Welsh address student concerns at Academic Board meeting

“How do you sleep at night?”: students confront admin on mental health

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

On October 3, Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost Students, addressed U of T’s Academic Board and a handful of protestors in an unusually full Governing Council Chamber: “I want to assure all of you that we share your concerns.” The protestors showed up following the September 27 death of a student in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology — the third in the same building and the fourth reported non-criminal student death in the past 16 months. Students, led by the UofT Mental Health Policy Council, a newly-created advocacy group, had come to express their frustration and exhaustion with the percieved lack of mental health support from the university.

Inside the chamber

Welsh reiterated the university’s actions toward increasing mental health support, having committed $3 million in the spring. They also acknowledged the university’s role in student mental health: “We are proud of our academic culture of excellence, but we understand that we all need to be aware of how that culture may affect students, and we all need to work to foster a more supportive community to help all of our students thrive.”

Disruption from protestors as the chair attempted to move the meeting back to normal business resulted in an agreement to allow four of the protestors to ask Welsh and President Meric Gertler questions. The four included U of T Mental Health Policy Council members and students from the Black Students’ Association.

“How many deaths was it going to take for you to do something before we made a ruckus and a mess of things?” questioned Shahin Imtiaz to a silent chamber of governors. “How do you sleep at night?”

Gertler responded after the students spoke, explaining the commitments of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health as well as the $1 billion Boundless campaign endowment for financial assistance to students.

“These are indeed issues that do keep us up at night,” said Gertler. “They do indeed seize all of us.”

An issue that became clear during the meeting was an unintended side effect of the university-mandated leave of absence policy, deterring students from seeking mental health support for fear of punitive action from the university.

“There is not a straight line from your registrar’s office to my office around this policy. And we need to do better at communicating… to students that this is a policy that is there to be supportive,” said Welsh in response to student demands that the policy be repealed.

However, after their allotted time to speak was over and the administration had given its response, protestors left when governors failed a two-thirds majority vote to adopt an amendment to the agenda and continued on with the predetermined schedule.

What happens now?

Besides the implementation of safety barriers in the Bahen Centre, the administration has been hesitant to make new commitments on mental health, even while student groups are increasingly calling for better support and services. Some faculty are also speaking out, calling on fellow professors to support student protestors.

Dr. Andrea Charise, Assistant Professor in the Department of English and at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Health & Society reflected on the death at the Bahen Centre in a thread on Twitter, explaining how professors are often on the forefront of assisting students dealing with mental health crises.

“In my five years’ experience as an assistant professor, I have referred countless students to health&wellness (a pretty common experience among my colleagues). But I was not prepared for the volume, range, and intensity of mental health experiences students entrusted me with,” tweeted Charise.

Jeffrey Ansloos, Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, expressed similar concerns in an interview with The Varsity.

“I’m not in the role of therapists when I’m working with students. And I think for a lot of my colleagues who maybe are not psychologists or social workers or different types of health professionals, the role of what a professor is supposed to provide is unclear, and not only is it unclear, but sometimes they don’t know the resources that they need to direct students to,” said Ansloos. He further pointed out the inaccessibility and lack of mental health support on campus as problems.

“Recognizing that students may not always be able to deliver upon workloads or may need additional accommodations or considerations around accessibility. To me, that is a baseline expectation, that if a faculty member fails to deliver upon, I think is problematic. But I don’t, at the same time, think that every faculty member should be working in the role of therapists. And I don’t know that that would be appropriate either.”


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.

Enough is enough, this is an emergency: U of T must immediately address its mental health crisis

Another student death at Bahen calls for immediate action from university administration, media, government

Enough is enough, this is an emergency:  U of T must immediately address its mental health crisis

Content warning: discussions of suicide.

When news broke on Friday that yet another person had died in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology in an apparent suicide, the U of T community once again entered a cycle that has become horrifyingly familiar since it first appeared in mid-2018: grief, anger, and a question that is all the more tragic because of its frequency — ‘again?’

The mental health crisis at U of T had been apparent long before the first reported suicide on campus on June 24, 2018, and each known death since has only furthered the grief felt by students and highlighted U of T’s acute failure to address the problem.

This incident marks the third death at Bahen Centre and the fourth reported death on campus in less than two years. These are stories that we should never have to report on.

We call on the U of T administration to truly engage with the real pain that students are going through and implement immediate and institutional change.

The university’s lacklustre response

In March 2019, the student body responded to the second apparent death by suicide at the Bahen Centre through a series of protests and petitions calling for the U of T administration to be held accountable and to improve the access and quality of on-campus mental health services. Last year’s sit-in protest at the Medical Sciences Building undoubtedly garnered attention from those in power, yet so far their response has been based more on performative platitudes than meaningful action.

Although students have been calling for measures such as 24-hour counselling services, increased funding to mental health resources, and student-majority representation in policy-making, the university administration has instead focused on the implementation of policies that make little change. Furthermore, these policies are made without the consent of the student population.

For instance, President Meric Gertler’s mental health taskforce, which was formed after the second death in March, has not yet led to any change in policy concerning mental health. Its process has been long and seemingly unproductive, with many criticizing the number of students on the taskforce — four out of 13 to represent a tri-campus student body of over 91,000 students.

The university has also still not taken action to repeal the controversial mandated leave of absence policy, despite continuous student opposition over the past two years. The policy only serves to deter vulnerable students from seeking mental health counselling in fear of facing adverse academic effects. Since the policy’s enactment, eight students have been placed on mandated leave as of August 2019 and the university claims that the feedback has been positive.

We need a proactive administration, not a reactive one

This time around, the university did, to some degree, improve its response. For instance, U of T acknowledged the death on the very night of the incident. On Sunday, U of T announced plans to improve safety around the Bahen Centre, including the implementation of structural barriers. While this does not tackle the underlying issue, evidence has shown that installing physical barriers around suicide hotspots is associated with a reduction in suicide deaths.

This is a step in the right direction. However, the issue remains that the university behaves reactively, as opposed to proactively. The addition of safety barriers had been recommended by students after the first death as a precaution against further incidents, but the university has only now announced changes to the now-infamous building. This step comes far too late.

When it comes to funding, the administration has often shifted the blame or responsibility to other institutions, including the provincial government. In an interview with The Varsity, President Gertler said, “We are not funded by the provincial government to be a health care-delivering organization.”

This is not an adequate response; the university, with its wealth and stature, could take a stand if it chose too. Specifically, it should immediately and significantly invest in funding to improve the services provided at the Health & Wellness Centres on all three campuses.

This means reducing wait times for initial appointments and phone calls, ensuring follow-up after initial intake, and removing limits on the number of annual appointments students can access. Furthermore, any changes to mental health policy should be done with the consultation of students; ideally a large and diverse group of representatives.

On responsible mental health journalism

Irresponsible journalism from campus and mainstream publications alike certainly does not help with the crisis we are currently experiencing. Research suggests that media reporting can influence vulnerable people and that irresponsible media coverage is associated with higher rates of suicide.

Accordingly, a 2017 paper from the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA) set out guidelines for reporting on suicide. For example, it suggests omitting the word “suicide” in the headline, or in any prominent spot online or in print.

However, a recent Toronto Star article did not meet these guidelines, as the word was put both in the headline and several times throughout the article. Fellow campus publication The Mike made this same mistake in a response to Friday’s death.

We were most disheartened when our colleagues at UTM’s student newspaper, The Medium, recently decided to publish an opinion piece which advocates for “The case for personal responsibility” when it comes to mental health. The article reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the structural nature of the mental health crisis, employs victim blaming, and does not support its opinion with enough credible scientific backing.

We acknowledge that The Varsity is also not perfect, so we wish to draw attention to the issue and encourage responsible reporting in good faith. We hope that these practices become more widespread as the journalism community, including ourselves, learns more about the mental health crisis.

The province must play its part

Although Gertler’s shifting of responsibility to the provincial government is not an adequate response to the crisis, the government is not in any way blameless. In July 2018, the Ford government cut $335 million from planned mental health funding that year. Cuts to services such as the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) have made it increasingly difficult for students to access support.

As of 2018, 61 per cent of first-entry undergraduate domestic students rely on some form of financial assistance, and such cuts further serve to increase anxiety. Responsibility falls to the university to do what it can to alleviate the implications of financial uncertainty on students’ mental health.

Though it sometimes feels like the responsibility for student mental health services is being passed from group to group with no avail, there is truth in the assertion that this issue must be tackled in a multi-level, multi-faceted way. There should be a shared responsibility for the provision of mental health and wellness services to students in need, and this begins with adequate funding for universities.

The provincial and federal governments have both pledged additional money toward mental health this year, but it is unclear how much of it will be directed at students and young people specifically. This is, hopefully, a step in the right direction, but the urgency of the situation at the University of Toronto requires more localized action. 

We stand with student advocacy

Student organizations have stepped up in the midst of lacklustre responses from government and university administrations through calls to action and solidarity. Last spring, a group of 15 students published an outstanding report entitled “Nothing About Us Without Us,” outlining student action, testimonies, and demands from the student population. Students have made impassioned and powerful pleas for action to the administration, and while the response remains underwhelming, this strong leadership does not go unnoticed by vulnerable students.

How Many Lives? is another example of a student-led initiative that hopes to produce actionable change. The resilience and determination of student leaders is inspiring, but it is difficult to advocate in darkness. U of T has yet to formally release data on student suicide rates, citing privacy and contagion. But withholding this information only serves to help the university, not students.

This university is not the haven it strives to be. If the administration refuses to admit to its failures, students will continue to suffer. At this point, enough is enough. We have no further patience for rhetoric. U of T: listen to students, and take radical, immediate action to support students from the moment they step foot on campus. The mental health crisis is an emergency, and we cannot stand for any more deaths in our community.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

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.