Administration addresses student concerns at UTMSU mental health town hall

Revamping syllabi, scrapping sick notes among possibilities discussed

Administration addresses  student concerns at  UTMSU mental health town hall

The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) invited students and panelists to have a conversation around mental health on campus last week, sparking discussion on classroom policies that negatively affect student mental health.

UTM Assistant Dean, Student Wellness, Support & Success Andrea Carter started the conversation by detailing her team’s efforts to provide mental health resources to students.

“We implement a step model of care which identifies chronic, immediate, urgent, and non-urgent needs for care, and engages in the appropriate next level options,” said Carter.

Her team’s goal, she said, is to simplify care through services such as a multilingual after-hours program through U of T’s recently released My Student Support Program service for free text and call support. Text service is offered through the app in six languages — English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Simplified Chinese, and Korean. If scheduled in advance, call service is offered in 146 languages and immediate call service is available in 35 languages.

The move toward equitable classroom policies

As the panel progressed, the conversation in the room shifted away from the mental health resources UTM offers its students and moved toward classroom policies that some students reported were detrimental to their mental well-being.

Fiona Rawle, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology and UTM Assistant Dean of Students, said that she has been in talks with various departments and professors to determine stress points, and how course policies can be adjusted accordingly.

“There’s one thing in particular where I see I can help address mental illness. And that’s in the teaching and learning collaboration,” she said. “This is how faculty and instructors get trained on how to teach effectively, have effective assignments, active learning classrooms and whatnot.”

Later in the semester, UTM students will be able to fill out a survey so that Rawle and her team can gauge what kinds of changes would be helpful to students. So far, her team’s data indicates that students who request exceptions to course policies often come from privileged backgrounds.

“If you’re granting exceptions, you can be reinforcing that privilege,” she said. “And I think a lot of professors might not be aware of this.” She also noted that there is research showing that male students are more likely to ask for and be granted grade changes.

Rawle and her team’s work aims to address these classroom policies to make them more equitable for students from all backgrounds. She also acknowledged that UTM is a commuter campus with its own particular challenges, and said that there is an ongoing discussion surrounding office hours, and whether to provide online office hours for students unable to remain on campus.

Revamping the syllabus

“Have professors ever said to you ‘that’s on the syllabus’ if you ask a question?” asked Rawle to the students in the town hall. Most answered in the affirmative.

Rawle explained that research suggests “students will often ask a question that’s on the syllabus, because it’s safe territory. They might not know how to start talking to their professor.”

Her team also hopes to implement various changes to syllabi, including using a less aggressive tone of writing and listing alternative assignments. One such example, said Rawle, is to offer students the option of filming and submitting a presentation versus presenting in front of a class.

Self-reported illness forms

Rawle and the UTMSU also discussed changes to the current sick note policy, potentially modelling a new system after UTSC reported “positive results” when it implemented self-reported sick notes in 2018–2019.

Currently, students are required to submit a Verification of Student Illness or Injury form to receive academic considerations on the basis of their illness or injury. The form requires a signature from a licensed health practitioner, such as a nurse, nurse practitioner, physician, or surgeon.

Students expressed concerns that some clinics charge a processing fee to complete the forms, and that this burden could be even greater for international students who do not have provincial health coverage.

The self-reported illness forms were first introduced during a UTM Campus Council meeting last May. At the time, Professor Amrita Daniere noted that the self-declared illness form would allow students to submit incomplete coursework for up to three consecutive days without worrying about providing official documentation, and that the form could be used up to two times per semester.

Additionally, Rawle noted that there have been discussions around flexible grading schemes that would eliminate the need for sick notes altogether. In fact, Rawle noted that “there’s a lot of professors who don’t want [sick] notes at all.” 

She offered an example of what a flexible grading scheme could look like: “If you have a reading assignment due every weekend, why not just take the best eight of 12 and not worry about [sick] notes?”

Her goal, she said, is to “give all the professors the same background knowledge so they understand what the options are [on setting the grading scheme].”

“There is no University of Toronto policy saying the late penalty has to be this, or even saying that you have to have a late penalty,” Rawle said. “Some departments have policies and some professors have their own policy.”

Carter also acknowledged how inaccessible the landing webpages of services at UTM are. “I Google everything that I need to find related to UTM because the web presence is difficult,” said Carter. “So we’re working on that.”

U of T releases statement on coronavirus following first confirmed case in Canada

UTMSU condemns racist targeting of Chinese, East Asian students

U of T releases statement on coronavirus following first confirmed case in Canada

On the heels of Toronto’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus on January 25, the University of Toronto released a statement on its preparedness and procedures for ensuring student safety on January 26. Since then, health officials have confirmed a second presumptive case in Toronto, with 19 others in the province under investigation. Officials in British Columbia have also confirmed one case in the province today.

Ontario public health officials have cautioned against misinformation after announcing the first presumptive case in Canada. The university echoed these statements by health officials, nothing that the risk of contracting the virus still remains low.

In its message, U of T seeks to quell student concerns regarding the virus, which originated in Wuhan, China. They wrote that “We are monitoring the situation carefully, and are in communication with faculty experts who work in our affiliated teaching hospitals and in public health.” However, they do warn that students who have both travelled abroad recently, and are experiencing “fever, cough, and difficulty breathing,” should avoid contact with others and seek medical attention.

Earlier today, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) released a membership advisory calling on students to “debunk myths rooted in anti-asian racism” when it comes to the coronavirus. They disclosed that a number of Chinese and East Asian UTM students have come forward after facing racist and xenophobic comments connected to the racialization of this virus. These comments have reportedly made assumptions about hygienic practices in China and East Asia, and have ridiculed these countries and their cultural foods. 

“While fear is an understandable and common reaction to a viral outbreak, it is important to remember that it is not an excuse for xenophobia and racism,” the UTMSU said in its statement.

The first confirmed case of the coronavirus in Canada originated in the U of T affiliated medical facility, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Sunnybrook remains open and hospital officials have assured the public that all patients and those visiting the hospital are safe. The Toronto man who contracted the virus had recently returned from Wuhan. He has been quarantined and is receiving active medical care. His wife, who travelled with him, is presumed to also have the virus.  

An online petition is being circulated, and has garnered over 29,000 signatures as of publication time. It calls on all Ontario schools and campuses to close in fear that the coronavirus will spread.

“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.

UTM: UTMSU Exam Destressors — Free Dinner!

Hey UTM! It’s that time of year again and we’ve got a bunch of great exam destressors for you to enjoy. Free food, activities and relaxation methods to take care of yourself this exam session.

Location: Presentation Room, Student Centre. 7:30PM – until quantities last.

*Keep your eyes peeled for FREE destressor kits throughout the exam period!*

For questions please email vpua@utmsu.ca!

UTM: UTMSU Exam Destressors — Free Dinner!

Hey UTM! It’s that time of year again and we’ve got a bunch of great exam destressors for you to enjoy. Free food, activities and relaxation methods to take care of yourself this exam session.

Location: Presentation Room, Student Centre. 7:30PM – until quantities last.

*Keep your eyes peeled for FREE destressor kits throughout the exam period!*

For questions please email vpua@utmsu.ca!

UTM: UTMSU Exam Destressors — Raptors Night

Hey UTM! It’s that time of year again and we’ve got a bunch of great exam destressors for you to enjoy. Free food, activities and relaxation methods to take care of yourself this exam session.

Location: Presentation Room, Student Centre

*Keep your eyes peeled for FREE destressor kits throughout the exam period!*

For questions please email vpua@utmsu.ca!

UTM: UTM Exam Destressors — Free Dinner!

Hey UTM! It’s that time of year again and we’ve got a bunch of great exam destressors for you to enjoy. Free food, activities and relaxation methods to take care of yourself this exam session.

Location: Presentation Room, Student Centre. 7:30PM – until quantities last.

*Keep your eyes peeled for FREE destressor kits throughout the exam period!*

For questions please email vpua@utmsu.ca!

UTM: UTMSU Exam Destressors — Snack Attack

Hey UTM! It’s that time of year again and we’ve got a bunch of great exam destressors for you to enjoy. Free food, activities and relaxation methods to take care of yourself this exam session.

Location: Presentation Room, Student Centre. 7:30PM- until quantities last.

*Keep your eyes peeled for FREE destressor kits throughout the exam period!*

For questions please email vpua@utmsu.ca!