Content warning: this article contains discussions of suicide.
In the wake of a death by suicide at Bahen Centre for Information Technology on March 17, U of T President Meric Gertler issued a letter to students, staff, and faculty announcing the formation of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health. This letter followed a large public outcry concerning the university’s inaction over the mental health crisis.
The task force was created to work toward the priorities identified in the university’s Student Mental Health Framework report. The mandate of the task force includes a review of mental health service delivery, coordination of tri-campus student mental health support, and partnerships with community-based mental health organizations.
While the task force aims to strengthen pre-existing policies and improve mental health facilities, its mandate does not effectively tackle one major cause of stress: the administration’s academic and admission policies.
University is a huge stepping stone from secondary education; many students find themselves in a completely new and strange environment. This can take a huge toll on a student’s academic performance.
And yet, it is a huge task to reserve an appointment with a health and wellness counsellor if the wait time for these services is too long. There is a lack of adequate safe counselling spaces and counsellors amongst the three campuses. Regardless of what the administrative policies might be, every student should have access to these services.
Students are hoping to see more effective communication with faculty and staff to improve on these services. They hope to see tangible change.
Earlier this year, President Gertler issued a statement clarifying that students’ mental health and physical well-being are the university’s utmost priority.
However, “if that really was the case, then that needs to be embodied in the academic culture on all three campuses,” remarked Lina Maragha, a representative of the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s ad hoc mental health committee.
Academic culture has become toxic over the years, as represented by the mandated leave of absence policy. The policy not only potentially forces student facing mental illnesses to take leave from school, but also restricts them from accessing numerous services, including those provided by the Health & Wellness Centre.
To restrict access to not just education, but also to essential services such as fitness centres, forces students to conceal their mental illnesses and prioritize academic achievement over mental well-being. Indeed, students may feel pressured or ashamed by their circumstances.
Students want to see President Gertler’s message incorporated in the way that student life is structured and envisioned, including increasing academic forgiveness policies, having lenient timelines for credit/no credit options, and late withdrawal for any courses.
As the task force’s mandate fails to address the GPA admission requirements to enter specific programs of study, there are steps that the administration can take toward creating a less stressful academic system. Other than lowering cutoff grades, U of T should make the program selection system abundantly clear to all prospective students.
In conjunction, the university should discuss directly admitting students into their programs in their first year, as is the case in numerous prestigious universities around the world. Moreover, a more holistic application process may be a better reflection of students’ abilities, and the admissions committee may be able to grasp a better understanding of who the student really is.
Earlier this summer, U of T revealed the 13 members of the task force, with four students representing the diverse student population at three campuses.
Maragha further commented that, “the current composition of the task force may not truly reflect the lived experiences of mental health by the community.” To tackle this, members of the community believe that it is important for the task force to have continuous discussions and consultations with students of all levels and status, and for the task force to integrate these consultations into its recommendations.
Furthermore, there have also been instances where professors do not take mental health illnesses seriously or act in a manner which might cause stress to some students. For instance, in a 2016 article reported by City News, a professor dismissed a student because they did not “look sick.”
Computer science students should be a particular focal point of the task force. Two deaths by suicide occured at the Bahen Centre this past year, which is the hub of computer science classes. These students are under intense pressure not only to get into their program, but also to succeed in highly competitive classes.
“Even with the minimal changes previously made for U of T mental health services, students are still hopeful about changes in the near future,” said Maragha.
The task force was formed as a result of increasing public pressure. The university administration failed to publicly recognize protesters for nearly two weeks, and mental health activists were shut down at Governing Council meetings. The announcement of the task force came after vast media coverage, and seems largely performative thus far.
Only one task force was made for three campuses that are in different geographical areas and whose student demographics differ drastically. This is not enough to review and address the entire community’s concerns. Only if and when the task force considers recommendations by students, and is willing to communicate effectively, will we begin to see a change in the happiness and health of the student population.
Vinayak Tuteja is a second-year Neuroscience and Bioinformatics student at University College.
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.