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

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

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

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Open letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conversation with Beverly Bain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200

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

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

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

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

The importance of community support in addressing student mental health concerns

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

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

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

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

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

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

Calls for additional mental health services and support on campus

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

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

Help-seeking preferences and student mental health

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

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

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

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

Opportunities for community and support building at U of T

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supporting student mental health through community building

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

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

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

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

Rosalia Samuel is a recent Psychology graduate from UTM.

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

Indigenous-led U of T lab releases app for reporting toxic pollutants in ‘Chemical Valley’

App could help community members of Aamjiwnaag First Nation

Indigenous-led U of T lab releases app for reporting toxic pollutants in ‘Chemical Valley’

A maze of petrochemical plants is squeezed into a 100-block space in the southern outskirts of Sarnia, Ontario. Marked by a distinct smell of rotting eggs, gasoline, and melting asphalt, this area, dubbed the ‘Chemical Valley,’ houses more than 60 refineries that produce plastics, gasoline, synthetic rubber, and other products.

The industrial area — which constitutes 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry — was built around the reserve on which Aamjiwnaang First Nation members reside. Today, around 850 people live on the reserve, which was created after their traditional territory was ceded to European settlers over many decades. According to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization, the air surrounding the reservation has been the most polluted in the country.

As long as the land remains enclosed by Chemical Valley, there are no means by which the Indigenous communities living on that land can find reprieve from the constant toxicity that surrounds them.

University of Toronto lab offers a potential solution

The Technoscience Research Team (TRU), has taken a meaningful step toward a solution. Researchers at this Indigenous-led lab at U of T launched a Pollution Reporter app, which allows members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation to report the pollutants in and around their land, and how they are affected by them.

The TRU is a cross-faculty research unit located at the Faculty of Information and jointly supported by the Faculty of Arts & Science, following its establishment at the Women and Gender Studies Institute. It draws together social justice approaches to science, and technology studies from across the university.

“Traditionally, Indigenous communities are seen as objects of research, but our lab is dedicated to flipping the tables on that,” said Dr. Michele Murphy, the TRU’s director and a professor at the Women and Gender Studies Institute, in an interview with The Varsity.

“We are a group of Indigenous researchers studying how colonialism works when it comes to oil refineries, environmental regulation, and so on. That’s our work,” she explained.

TRU’s research focuses on the Imperial Oil Refinery in Chemical Valley, which is the largest and oldest polluter in the area. Other refineries in the area also produce high quantities of pollutants, with up to 50–60 times the amount of harmful pollutants such as sulfur dioxide or benzene, compared to similar refineries across the valley’s river in the United States.

How the app works

The TRU’s Pollution Reporter App offers an accessible way for community members and the public to make reports about pollution. These reports can alert the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks of pollution incidents, spills, leaks, and flares.

According to Vanessa Gray, one of the developers of the app, the current system in place to report the impact of a spill or pollutant is by calling the Spills Action Centre, which is located in Toronto. Callers would be asked about what they were doing during the incident, the direction of the wind during the incident, and other questions that are often difficult to answer.

Gray mentioned that the app allows users to fill those categories out themselves, along with other categories, such as where they might be feeling the effects of those chemicals by looking at different icons. Chemicals from Imperial Oil Refinery are also searchable, which enables community members to get answers much quicker.

App also provides health information regarding pollutants

The app also enables users to search for information about the area, according to the related symptoms, health hazards, or chemicals present. Users can access pollution emissions data with research about known health hazards.

The app works by linking publicly-available data on refinery emissions from the federal government’s National Pollutant Release Inventory to known health hazards, based on peer-reviewed medical literature.

A main advantage of the app is that it translates chemical jargon for community members to understand, which could help raise awareness about the failing health of their land, waters, and community.

Rsearchers at the TRU hope that the Pollution Reporter App can amplify the ability of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s voice to be heard.

Disclosure: Aanya Bahl is the Mental Wellness Commissioner on the University College Literary and Athletic Society.

Who consumes the most cannabis in Canada?

Small group of heavy users are responsible for two thirds of national consumption

Who consumes the most cannabis in Canada?

Since the national legalization of cannabis last year, Canada has become the largest country in the world with a legalized cannabis marketplace. Due to the controversial nature of this relatively new law, there has been a great deal of research on the role of cannabis in our society, which may shed light on the future of cannabis policy framework.

In a recent multi-institutional study, researchers, including U of T-affiliated scientists, aimed to find the largest cannabis consumption group by investigating the demographics of cannabis consumption in Canada, which has led to surprising findings.

Young males are the most likely users of cannabis

The researchers evaluated the distribution of cannabis consumption across Canada using data from Statistics Canada’s 2018 National Cannabis Survey. They found that a small group of heavy users were responsible for two thirds of all cannabis consumption in the country.

Of these heavy users, males were reported to consume more cannabis than females, and young males between 15–34 years old were “disproportionately represented” in this sub-group.

Based on previous demographic data, “It is not particularly surprising that we’re seeing this particular age group over-represented in the heaviest users,” said Dr. Russell Callaghan, a co-author associated with the Human Brain Laboratory at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Callaghan noted that one possible reason for this trend is that males of this age group are often prone to risk-taking behaviours associated with alcohol and drug use across the spectrum, including cannabis. However, there are a multitude of factors behind this finding.

Potential impact of the study on preventing cannabis-related harm

The study gives basic insights into potential policy-making strategies in recreational drug use and preventive measures for cannabis-related harm.

“Usually when we understand the population distributions of, let’s say, cannabis use or alcohol use, it will give us a sense of where the harms might be,” said Callaghan.

A small subset of alcohol users — the top 10 per cent — is responsible for more than half of alcohol consumption in the United States, according to the co-authors. However, Callaghan noted that most of the common harms from alcohol use occur from light to moderate usage, due to a larger segment of the population consuming it.

Similar research for cannabis is rather limited, and it is still unclear whether the heaviest cannabis users account for the most common cannabis-related harms. A next step for future researchers, according to Callaghan, would be to understand the relationship between the population distribution of cannabis use and harm reduction.

“If you understand what we’ve done in the alcohol field, then you will understand what I was looking for in the cannabis field,” Callaghan remarked.

By finding the relationship between the demographics of cannabis consumption and cannabis-related harm, similar to previous studies on alcohol, policymakers are now able to focus on specific groups in order to reduce the potential harms.

Callaghan noted that treatment, incentives, pricing, adjusting cannabis availability in stores, and store density could all be viable options in reducing potential harm from cannabis use, depending on the results of future research.

Opinion: Expand and promote on-campus vaccinations

Bringing health care to students is a great step toward accessible well-being

Opinion: Expand and promote on-campus vaccinations

It’s that time of year again. As lecture halls fill with sounds of coughing, sneezing, and sniffling, courtesy of students who refuse to cover their germ-laden mouths in class, you can be sure that flu season is upon us.

As a child, I dreaded going to the doctor and getting stabbed in the arm with an obnoxiously long needle — and honestly, I still do. However, one thing I do appreciate is how easy it is to go in to my local walk-in clinic and get vaccinated. This ease of access — a privilege that many do not have — saves me tons of time.

The availability of immunizations on campus is a huge step toward establishing health care that is both equitable and accessible.

For commuter students like myself, the act of getting a flu shot has become an afterthought. When I’m commuting an hour and a half to get to class, where I’ll be from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, when will I find the time to get a flu shot?

However, this November, I was able to get my flu shot after just a two-minute walk to Sidney Smith Hall. Instead of having to miss a lecture — or worse yet, a tutorial quiz — I was immunized in just a few minutes.

While the university has taken a step in the right direction, there are still a number of ways that administration can improve the availability and awareness of these programs.

For example, the lack of advertising was astounding. I only heard about the flu shots through word of mouth, which, given the university’s resources, is not a very effective method for conveying this information.

U of T should further utilize online resources such as social media posts to communicate these beneficial programs to students. As of the time of writing, U of T’s Instagram account has roughly 105,000 followers. By amplifying the presence of on-campus immunizations, U of T could foster a larger turnout for next year. Increasing the total number of students who are able to get their flu shot ultimately helps the entire school community.

Moreover, in-person advertising, such as an information booth outside Sidney Smith Hall, would also increase general awareness of these vaccination areas.

Additionally, in order to increase ease of access for students living in residence, it would be specifically helpful to have immunization centres inside colleges. It’s important to keep in mind that these are students who might be taking responsibility of their own health for the first time ever. Personally, if St. Michael’s College hosted pop-up immunization stations at Brennan Hall, I would certainly take advantage of this opportunity.

Bringing accessible health care to the student body, rather than expecting students to access it outside of campus, has been a positive development for U of T students, especially commuters. Moving forward, we must continue to expand these efforts, not only through increased advertising, but also by diversifying the locations of on-campus flu shots beyond just a few near the centre of campus.

Vaccinations are crucial in ensuring that student health is maintained. Complications that arise with failing health impede physical wellness and academic functionality. Ensuring that students are able to prevent illnesses in a free and accessible manner gives everyone more time to study for those awful finals that are coming up.

Angad Deol is a first-year Life Sciences student at St. Michael’s College.

The unexplained side of autonomous vehicles

How self-driving cars could impact human health

The unexplained side of autonomous vehicles

As automated vehicle (AV) technology advances and becomes more mainstream, further research should be conducted to understand how self-driving vehicles will impact population health and well-being.

The focus of much of the research and discussion surrounding AVs lies predominantly in their impact on road safety. However, they can transform our way of living in many other areas. Social equity, the natural environment, and our constructed environment will impact whether AV technology has beneficial or adverse effects on our health.

In a recent University of Toronto-affiliated paper, researchers explored these themes and others in order to examine the potential impacts of AVs on health outcomes and lifestyles.

What are automated vehicles?

An automated car’s ability to function independently of human input is reliant on software that collects information from sensors and video cameras on the car. These devices help the software understand the position of the vehicle and its surroundings, especially its position in relation to other vehicles, pedestrians, traffic lights, and road signs.

The software then uses this information to process sensory input in order to send instructions to the car’s actuators, which are devices in charge of the car’s acceleration, braking, and steering.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has defined six levels of driving automation, ranging from level 0, fully manual; to level 5, fully automated. The levels are based on whether the human or the automated system is mostly responsible for monitoring the driving environment.

It is interesting to note that the SAE differentiates between the terms “automated” and “autonomous,” and does not use “autonomous.” The term autonomy has implications of self awareness beyond the electro-mechanical.

A completely autonomous car would be able to make its own choices based on its own awareness, which is not the same as automated driving.

A self-driving car like a Tesla would be categorized under level 3, conditional automation. Its autopilot feature allows for the vehicle to have environmental detection capabilities, steer, accelerate, and brake, but human supervision is still required to operate the vehicle.

This is an exciting time as AV technology is rapidly evolving. However, the health impacts of AVs should also be highlighted.

How are AVs changing human health?

The co-authors of the study assessed the literature in order to investigate the implications that AVs could have on human health.

Several of the key themes explored were road safety, the natural environment, lifestyle, social equity, and the urban environment.

It should be no surprise that most of the existing literature is concentrated on road safety; the implementation of fully automated vehicles could revolutionize mobility and transportation as we know it.

For example, AVs have the potential to play a key role in collision avoidance. As human error is the most common reason for vehicle collisions, higher levels of AV technology could mitigate this risk factor.

However, while AVs could reduce the stress of operating a vehicle and increase the enjoyment of travel, an over-reliance on AVs could also result in an increase in sedentary behaviour.

For example, humans might switch to using AVs for trips that normally involve active forms of travel, like walking or bicycling, or rely on AVs for longer trips instead of rail or air travel.

The impact of AVs on the climate crisis

As AV technology becomes more prevalent, so does its role in the climate crisis. The literature concerning fuel efficiency or emissions and AVs was found to be divided on whether the implications of AVs are more beneficial or harmful to the natural environment.

Some academics argue that AVs could allow for a “less carbon-intensive transportation system if the majority of AVs are electrically powered.” Others argue that AVs will only perpetuate the existing dependency on cars, which will require more road infrastructure, and have more detrimental impacts on the environment and our respiratory and cardiovascular health.

The study emphasizes that the environmental impacts would have to be determined by the model of AV ownership and access, and the type of fuel source.

The impact of AVs on social inequality

Social equity was also found to be another theme commonly explored in literature, as the advent of self-driving cars is predicted to “improve accessibility for differently-abled populations” and “improve social connectivity. ”

However, this would depend on whether the AVs have a shared or personal ownership model. If private ownership is the predominant model, high income populations would benefit more while lower income populations could “face decreased access to transportation,” or other barriers that come with reliance on public transportation.

Opposingly, a shared model of AVs would provide many benefits for human health in regards to reclaiming public spaces and opening up more green space for human activity. For example, the “traffic efficiency of AVs could free up space in the right-of-way to allow for cycling infrastructure and allow for wider sidewalks.”

Furthermore, a shared model of AVs would allow for reclaiming parking lots as part of the public realm and present opportunities for affordable housing or urban green spaces.

Policies, AVs, and health outcomes

While AVs are anticipated to improve human health outcomes, the measures that can be implemented to protect humans are also crucial.

In an email to The Varsity, a Toronto Public Health spokesperson emphasized that as AV technology becomes more prevalent, the evidence related to AVs and population health expands, it is important that health impacts are monitored to identify trends.

When asked whether regulations of this industry could help balance the positive and negative outcomes of AVs, and whether regulations would be a sufficient measure on their own, the spokesperson wrote, “Processes to develop regulations and policies that govern AV introduction and use should consider all potential health and equity impacts. This will support identification and mitigation of potential negative impacts.”

The Toronto Public Health spokesperson added that consumer education may be helpful, such as by informing consumers of the benefits of choosing an electric vehicle versus one that uses fossil fuel emissions.

This information “would be most effective as a supplement to evidence-informed, health-protective regulations and policies,” according to the spokesperson.

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’s smoking ban was ineffectively implemented

Absence of designated smoking areas, cigarette disposals render the policy inconvenient, creates litter

U of T’s smoking ban was ineffectively implemented

It has been over nine months since U of T’s smoking ban was implemented. Announced in November, and implemented this past January, the ban was introduced with the intention of creating a healthier campus, away from the harmful effects of first and secondhand smoke. While the rule is meant to protect people’s health, it is ineffective as it currently stands.

Designated smoking areas

It would be a good idea to incorporate smoking areas on campus because they encourage people to smoke in a more secluded space, where non-smokers are less likely to inhale harmful smoke.

Unlike the university’s Scarborough and Mississauga campuses, UTSG does not have designated smoking areas. It is likely that administrators believe there is no need for such spaces due to the campus’ proximity to public streets, where people can legally smoke.

According to the campus policy, smokers must walk from their classes to off-campus areas to consume tobacco or marijuana. Most often, they congregate on the sidewalks of notoriously busy public streets such as St. George, Hoskin, and Harbord. These sidewalks are city property and do not fall under the university’s jurisdiction.

This affects all members of the UTSG community, both smokers and non-smokers. Smokers who have classes in locations such as King’s College Circle waste a lot of time getting to an off-campus sidewalk for a smoke break. This could affect their ability to get to class on time if they are scheduled back-to-back.

Students who live in residence may put their safety at risk by going to a public space alone for a smoke at night. Worst of all, because the ban gives smokers no choice but to light up on the street, passersby now routinely inhale more secondhand smoke on their walks between classes.

A solution that would accommodate everyone would be to designate smoking areas on campus, which would encourage smokers to get their fix in a safe and secluded area.

Cigarette disposal receptacles

UTSG used to have ashtrays, but ever since the smoking ban, there has been nowhere for faculty and students to responsibly dispose of their butts. Recently, I noticed that outdoor garbage cans around campus have begun sporting a sticker that suggest that cigarette butts are not permitted in the trash.

These garbage cans are the only ones anywhere near campus. If cigarettes cannot be disposed of in the garbage, smokers who consume tobacco on the public streets beside campus are more inclined to throw them on the ground. The lack of places to discard cigarettes at the moment will lead to an eventual build-up of litter on public sidewalks, mere metres away from university buildings.

The university’s Mississauga campus is a prime example of positive change in terms of cigarette littering. Currently, the campus is working with a company called TerraCycle to “recycle waste from outdoor cigarette butt collectors on campus.” The project depends on smokers disposing of their butts in receptacles placed around campus.

TerraCycle receptacles would be useful at the downtown campus, as there needs to be a sustainable way for smokers to dispose of their butts.

This was U of T’s first year banning smoking, so it’s understandable that some of the details surrounding the ban have not been worked out yet. A compromise involving the installation of designated smoking areas and cigarette butt receptacles would benefit everyone. Hopefully, the university will reflect on the way things have unfolded since the ban, and move to accommodate all faculty and students.

Agata Mociani is a second-year English student at New College.