It was the morning of October 3 when I was gently awoken from my hospital bed by a doctor. She introduced herself to me as Dr. Waissman. She then led me and my friend Anita from the in-patient room we had been in since the night before to a more private room. As I sat on the bed, we went over my life, and I described to her my mental state: the stress, the too-high ups and the too-low downs—my life. Some of the things I disclosed to her were things I had been too afraid to tell anyone—even myself, at times. They were things that felt too big and too scary, like my eating disorder. But I felt safe, and to be honest, I felt a bit more hope than I had the day before.
Once I was discharged, I was given medication and a later appointment with Dr. Waissman, which made the future look a bit brighter in my eyes. As the days passed I wondered silently alone, and then out loud to those close to me, why was it that when I went to my university’s health centre for suicidal ideation, the route to getting help had been so traumatizing and terrifying? It felt wrong.
It began on Wednesday October 2. Wednesdays are my longest days, where I finish at 8:00 p.m. at night. After three years of attending classes at U of T, I had become accustomed to the routine. However, this day for me felt different. I spent the day feeling deeply suicidal. Sadness gripped me every hour and through each class, because this has been one of the hardest—if not the hardest—years of my life. I have had to come to terms with the different childhood traumas, many punishing teenage years, and the complicated tangle of my twenties. It was overwhelming to say the least.
I decided to confide in my close friend, Anita Mozaffari. Once I did, she advised that we go and speak to the Health and Counseling Centre (HCC) to seek help. After all, everywhere you look on campus, the HCC is advertised as the place we students are told to go for help with mental health matters.
We made our way to the grim Davis building and entered the HCC, tucked away in the basement. We first spoke to the receptionist and let her know I needed to see a psychiatrist as soon as possible. However, she let me know that it would be a three-step process which consisted of seeing the mental health nurse, the doctor, and then the psychiatrist. The process could take months, she said, and then added that anywhere I’d go, I would find that is the way things are. Although I knew it was not her intention, her words made me feel helpless. In that moment, I broke. I couldn’t hold back my tears, and I started crying. I had already had a taste of this hopelessness, because at the time, I was also a few weeks into a months-long waiting list for a non-university psychiatrist that my family doctor had referred me to. But in that moment, I needed help. I was afraid.
Once I started crying, the receptionist told me that in the meantime, she would let me in to see a nurse. I talked to the nurse by myself first and Iet her know my situation. I was experiencing suicidal ideation, and I had a plan: I wanted to jump off a bridge near my house. But, I told her, I would be staying at my friend’s house in a completely different city in order to keep safe. Together, the nurse and I drafted a safety plan, and she seemed to approve of my plan to stay with my friend. She told us we would have to speak with campus police for maybe 10-15 minutes before we could leave.
In my mind, I figured it was a formality—often in counselling sessions they acknowledge the fact that police have to be involved upon the mention of someone wanting to hurt themselves.
My friend and I sat together for a brief time in the waiting room awaiting the officers. Nervous, I tried to reassure myself with the thought that things were going to be alright.
The campus police arrived: two large men, fully uniformed and in neon vests, unmistakably stating their authority. They guided both of us into a small room at the end of a small hallway in the HCC. I felt strange. There was no nurse or mental health worker with us, and that made me uneasy. I tried to reassure myself that this would just be a brief talk.
The police officers dived immediately into questioning me: why was I at the HCC? I let them know the exact situation I’d described to the nurse beforehand. Once I mentioned the bridge, the officers stopped everything. They let me know that they would have to take me “under arrest,” as was protocol. I was confused, as I was not aware of this protocol before, despite having been to the emergency room of a hospital for the same case of suicidal ideation this past summer. Looking back, I would have preferred if they had not used the word “arrest,” and instead had said something along the lines of my being taken into custody specifically for my safety. Maybe then I would have been able to understand where the protocol was coming from.
Before they “arrested” me, I implored them not to do so. I told them I would be willing to go to the hospital with them. I wanted help, but I wanted help without humiliation and with autonomy. Dizzily, I followed their instructions to stand up, turn around, and place my hands behind my back. As I did, I started to panic because I did not understand what was happening to me. They locked metal handcuffs around each of my wrists—which, if you have never, like me, been arrested, was a terrifying feeling. I remember that at the moment I felt as though I had done something wrong, and began looking back at all the decisions I’d made in my life and thought of whether I had done something to bring this iniquity upon myself.
I distantly understood that my friend asked the police if she too could be handcuffed in solidarity, but was rejected. I began hyperventilating, and my friend tried to intervene by alerting the officers to my panic attack and asking if they knew how to help. Both of them failed to offer much comfort, and so with what she had read previously on panic attacks, my friend walked me through the panic attack, advising me to breathe slowly, and succeeded in calming me down.
Now, I often look back and wonder what might have occurred if my friend had not been there to reduce my panic. I wish, in that moment, and if this were to ever happen again, that the campus police (or better yet, a mental health professional) had been active and able in de-escalating the situation and reducing my panic. This should not have been the responsibility of my friend—a fellow student—but the responsibility of the professionals at the scene.
Once I was calmer, tears still racing down my face, the officers put Anita’s jacket over my handcuffed hands to cover the metal. I tried to think of my mother, as she has come to be a safe place for me, but I still felt trapped and alone. The officers escorted me through the elevator, down into the long stretches of the RAWC building, which buzzed with people everywhere. I tried not to look around me. I was sure that a girl in tears, with neon-uniformed officers at either side of her, was something that would invite unwanted attention.
I could feel my friend behind me, but there was not much she could do. I wish there had been the choice for me to hide my identity, either by being taken through a different route, or being offered some way to cover my face.
As we got to the doors, it became clear that the police car was not yet ready for us, so we stood inside waiting. I voiced my humiliation to my friend and the officer. I told him that despite knowing that he was just doing his job, this process felt wrong. The car should have been ready. It would have been better to have waited in the secluded room until it was.
Once the car was ready, my friend asked different officers if she could ride with me. At this point, one of the officers was replaced with a policewoman. The officers rejected Anita’s request. This frightened me further. These officers, who were unfamiliar to me, had proven that they would not offer me meaningful comfort during my panic attack in the secluded room. But I stayed silent, and went cooperatively into the car while Anita took an Uber to meet me at the hospital.
The ride to Credit Valley Hospital was awful. I wish I could have had an ally beside me to talk through it with me. After all, I had never been to this hospital. I would have liked to have, if not a friend, a mental health professional to sit with me and talk to me. But between my day, my year, and the barrier between me and the officers, I felt alone once again—and again, I panicked. I threw up in the car, and I cried.
Once we arrived to the hospital, the policeman opened my door, and among his first words to me were simply and inconsiderately, “it doesn’t matter anymore,” as he removed the jacket obscuring my cuffed hands. It stung bitterly, to hear such words uttered, as I would be the only one walking in handcuffs through an unknown place, and it ought to have been my choice whether to walk unobscured. But it felt like I couldn’t say anything because it felt as if I, and what I wanted, did not matter. It had not mattered to the officers how greatly I’d been willing to cooperate before, and it did not matter now how I felt about protecting my dignity.
This time, as I was escorted through the halls, I decided to look. I saw fear in the eyes of the patients around me—they were vulnerable, and to them, I understood that I looked like a criminal. I felt like a criminal, too.
As we proceeded through the hospital, Anita found us. She asked if I was alright, and I let her know what had happened on the way. She cleaned my face and asked if I had been offered a drink or some food. The officers had done no such thing.
I spent the next hour or so waiting in line on a chair in the halls of the emergency room, with my hands still twisted behind my back, and the metal of the handcuffs cutting into my wrists. I think it unnecessary to use such restraints on individuals asking for help. If the situation deems the use of restraints absolutely necessary, then the restraints used should be made of softer material. Handcuffs are stigmatizing.
Anita spent the whole time waiting with me, and I remember her asking many times if there was something on my mind. I did not want her to worry, but I also didn’t know how to explain to her the complete desolation I was feeling at that moment. I did not know how to explain to her the ways in which I had now changed because of this traumatizing experience. How there were few times in my life, such as this, where I had felt so helpless. How I felt like this had happened despite my best actions to be a person my loved ones could be proud of. I didn’t feel like anyone could be proud of me then. I didn’t feel much like anything. At one point, I admitted to Anita that I felt numb, and so we spent the night taking our minds elsewhere, onto our readings and the subject of our pets.
Eventually, I was able to speak to a hospital nurse. I repeated to her the same narrative I had to the HCC nurse and officers, and within minutes, she had deemed from the same information the officers had that I was not a threat, and declared that my handcuffs be removed. I stayed overnight at the hospital and received truly helpful treatment at the hands of the Credit Valley Hospital staff.
The days following this incident, however, I felt numb, and at many points scared, because I did not know how to follow up with how the campus police and the HCC had treated me.
Following the incident, I was not immediately contacted by the university explaining the reasoning behind my particular case and the handcuffing. It was after the article in The Medium was published, and after we reached out to a mental health ambassador, that I was able to receive some sort of response from U of T representatives.
Every student should receive a formal, personalized explanation from professionals about what happened to them, why, and what will happen next—including explicit steps on how to provide feedback on how they were treated if the student so wishes.
I thought my handcuffing was an isolated incident, but it is not. Many other students across U of T, and in different universities, have been treated this way after asking for help.
I believe that the protocol of handcuffing students and having them escorted by police is unnecessary and inappropriate. Individuals struggling with mental illness should be offered services that are compassionate, respectful, and dignified. It is important to note that individuals like myself, who struggle with mental illness, are more likely to be criminalized and stigmatized due to our intersectional identities.
Furthermore, mental health professionals should be involved at every single step of the process, if and when hospitalization is required. Restraintment should not consist of metal handcuffs. Softer material is a realistic reform.
If better protocols cannot be installed to provide better services to students, then in my opinion, it is irresponsible to let students believe that the university is capable of appropriately and safely caring for their mental health.
I hope that in the future, the university will involve students more in the creation and amendment of mental health protocols, to ensure informed respect for the students’ boundaries, autonomy, and wishes.
I hope that those who have been through this process before feel that they are not alone and have a voice. And that those who are currently struggling are able to seek help. Despite my experience, I still met mental health professionals who were kind, and who respected my voice. Help is out there for you too. I am grateful to Anita for having been there for me, for having made me laugh, and for being my advocate and friend through a difficult ordeal.