The Breakdown: The Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health

U of T’s mental health task force continues consultation phase despite criticisms from students

The Breakdown: The Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

The Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health is in the first phase of its operational plans. The task force was formed in late March in response to two reported student deaths by suicide on campus in the past year. Following its start in the summer, the task force will continue to meet with various student groups, university staff, and administration, and other relevant groups over the fall. 

In total, the task force consists of 13 people: the Chair, Dean of Medicine Trevor Young; four student representatives; three faculty members; three administrative staff members; and two senior assessors. 

The central goal of the task force is to review both student mental health services and co-ordination between support systems across U of T’s three campuses, in addition to evaluating the physical spaces where mental health services are provided. Proceeding evaluation, the task force then plans to make recommendations to President Meric Gertler and the Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr by December 2019.

The task force’s Outreach and Engagement plan, published online, details the groups and individuals that the task force will meet with as it gathers information, operates pop-up booths, and hosts in-person consultations at all three campuses. The final stage of the task force will be to present its draft themes and recommendations for a public response via an online form before giving its findings and recommendations to the administration.

“Nothing About Us Without Us”

In an open letter published in The Varsity, 15 students characterized the task force as an insufficient response to a “ongoing mental health crisis” on campus and asked for the task force’s dissolution on the grounds of “a lack of transparency, diversity, and accountability mechanisms.” The students also criticized the administration for being unresponsive to their requests for meetings and consultations on the university’s mental health infrastructure.

“Nothing About Us Without Us”  is a 40-page report written by student activists that outlined numerous demands, among them that any university initiatives regarding mental health be comprised of a student majority, including in leadership positions. The report details specific criticisms that students have lodged since 2014, and also cites student experiences with the university’s mental health support system. 

University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) President Joshua Bowman, while remaining “cautiously optimistic,” echoed concerns of student activists, noting that the task force lacks sufficient student representation. 

“[The four students on the task force] are charged with representing 71,930 undergraduate and 19,356 graduate students, respectively, according to 2017-2018 enrolment,” wrote Bowman in an email to The Varsity. He also noted that “members were selected without regard to lived experiences of mental illness or diverse identities, but based on professional and scholarly experience.”

“U of T has, for too long, ignored the voices of students in mental health policy. This Task Force was an opportunity to center the voices of students that U of T has failed to realize,” wrote Bowman.

Egag Egag, one of the two graduate representatives on the task force, acknowledged the challenges of having four students on a task force set to address the mental health of around 90,000 students across three campuses. In an email to The Varsity, Egag wrote, “it is my hope that all students will take an opportunity to participate, so that we have feedback that is authentic and representational of UofT’s students.”

Action and accountability

Currently, the task force’s sole purpose is to make recommendations, and although the Outreach and Engagement plan states that the task force will be meeting with various student unions, Bowman reports that the UTSU has not heard from the task force. 

Similarly, Chemi Lhamo, President of the Scarborough Students’ Union, wrote to The Varsity that “[the administration] also need to acknowledge that U of T students are different because of the overwhelming pressure to do well in one of the best institutions in the world.”

While Lhamo hopes that the task force will produce results, she is skeptical that the it will be able to properly represent marginalized students, and address the unique challenges faced by U of T’s satellite campuses.

 “We are looking forward to seeing actions being taken and not just the talk,” wrote Lhamo. 

Social and behavioural health sciences PhD student Corey McAuliffe is one of the members of the newly formed task force. In an email to The Varsity, McAuliffe described the role of the task force as “one way in which to address student mental health at U of T.” 

Echoing sentiments made by President Meric Gertler in an interview with The Varsity in late July, McAuliffe called on the participation of all stakeholders in the university — including the government and students — to create a “healthy environment.”

The task force is currently running an online consultation form, as part of its first phase, which will close on October 15.

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.


Ontario boosts funding for post-secondary mental health services by $6 million

Minister Deb Matthews announced additional funding at U of T press conference

Ontario boosts funding for post-secondary mental health services by $6 million

On May 3, the Ontario government announced that $6 million in additional funding for mental health services will be provided to post-secondary institutions over the next three years. This funding is on top of the annual $9 million currently provided to support students’ mental health.

Deb Matthews, Ontario’s Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, announced the new funding initiative at the Koffler Student Services Centre Wednesday morning. She was joined by Dr. Eric Hoskins, Ontario’s Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, Dr. Andrea Levinson of U of T’s Department of Psychiatry, and Mathias Memmel, President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU).

“Our government is committed to creating a more coordinated and responsive mental health system in Ontario,” said Matthews. “We have heard from students, faculty, administrators and others that there is a rising demand for mental health services on campus.”

The announcement followed the release of the 2017 provincial budget, which includes incoming initiatives such as a $465 million investment to make prescription drugs free for those aged 24 and under. The budget also provides for expanding access to psychotherapy services while developing a new, publicly funded psychotherapy program aimed at helping people living with mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

During the press conference, all of the speakers emphasized the difficulty of transitioning from adolescence to young adulthood for college and university students. According to Levinson, data shows that there was a 400 per cent increase in students registered with mental illness disabilities within Ontario’s post-secondary institutions between 2004 and 2014.

Hoskins went into detail about the province’s structured psychotherapy program, stating that it will provide over 100,000 Ontario residents with access to cognitive behavioural therapy. This practice focuses on the link between thoughts and behaviours and aims to provide individuals skills and strategies to use when they may be distressed as a result of their disorders.

The province is also promoting the expansion and creation of nine “youth wellness hubs,” which will provide what Hoskins calls a “one-stop shop” for individuals under 25 to access services such as primary care, social services, and mental health support.

Matthews noted that the province supports the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health, where institutions can access expert advice to help students with mental needs. Earlier this spring, the province provided funding to every college and university in Ontario to hire a mental health worker on campus to work directly with students.

The now-$15 million in yearly funds “means more helping hands, more safe spaces, more top quality resources who are non-judgemental people to talk to,” Matthews said. “It will promote a greater culture of openness when it comes to talking about mental health.”

Speaking on behalf of the UTSU, Memmel concluded the press conference with a call for partnership between the provincial government, university administration, and student organizations to better support students when it comes to their mental health.

Last week, a close friend of mine who needed help had so little confidence in the health and wellness services on their campus that he chose to go to [the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health] instead. That can’t happen, said Memmel. 

The resources that exist at post-secondary institutions need to have the full and complete trust of students, especially in times of emergency. That confidence can only be created when programs receive sufficient funding from the province,” Memmel stated, “so that organizations like the UTSU can, in good faith, direct its students to on-campus resources, and these resources have to be provided and custom tailored by the university itself.”