Warning: This article contains references to suicide
The last time this happened, we said “never again.” We were angry. We protested. We demanded change. And yet, another student has taken their life. Just in the past two years, five U of T students felt hopeless enough to take their own lives. Five people with loved ones who’d mourn them. Five people who probably had hopes and dreams and plans for the future, who under different circumstances could have built full and long lives. But they chose death over continuing to struggle every day.
Clearly, U of T, popularly referred to as UofTears among students, has a problem addressing students’ mental health concerns. In recent years, U of T has made attempts to improve access to mental health services through various ways, such as adding $3 million to its mental health budget and increasing the number of counsellors to 90. However, with a student body of 90,000, is that really enough? Can one counsellor adequately address the needs of 1,000 students?
With a student to counsellor ratio as large as 1:1000, waiting times for appointments can stretch on for weeks if not longer. The university also created a “Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health” after a student suicide last year. The task force is part of a four-part plan, whose mandate was to review and recommend improvements for mental health service delivery, coordination of student supports related to mental health, partnerships with community-based organizations and hospitals, and consider the physical spaces in which mental health services are provided.”
As of January 2020, the university’s plan of action was to “streamline and simplify the pathways to care” by building a more efficient system, integrating services across all three campuses into one tri-campus model. However, given the sudden shift in circumstances as a result of the pandemic, progress on this has yet to be seen. Now, more than ever, it is essential for the university to implement actionable change as its members deal with an unprecedented reality. A reality where everyday bleeds into the next; every week is an indistinguishable blur; every subsequent month is characterized only by an ever-escalating sense of panic; and the passage of time is only marked by yet another disaster happening in some part of the world. Not only are people occupied with the constant worry over the lives of their loved ones, their own health, financial security, and future, there is also the added stress of academic pressure.
Not only do people have to cope with the sheer anxiety of a global pandemic, they must do it while attending lectures, tutorials, and meetings. Under normal circumstances, U of T has a highly rigorous academic environment, with a constant expectation of academic and extra-curricular excellence. This has more or less continued in the pandemic. The university’s policies around academic performance has not adapted to reflect the social context we are in. Students are expected to quickly adapt to an online format, churning out papers and assignments like well-oiled machines. Of course, sentiments of understanding and support are displayed by professors, though they are subsequently followed by instructions for yet another assignment, which sours the compassion to insincerity.
While it is true that some professors have actively made efforts to create a more accommodating academic environment, the university itself has not standardized any policies to academically support students this fall semester. For example, academic extensions still remain subjective to the professors or the department, often only in cases of extenuating circumstances. What, I wonder, would be considered an extenuating circumstance in this reality? The fact that millions of people are dying every day, perhaps? Or maybe the extreme social isolation people are facing? Or the ever-increasing, unending list of disasters? All of these circumstances should be “extenuating” enough to justify a difficulty with academics. It’s not just these world-shattering circumstances, either. Students are struggling with finances, family, and other work, all situations that aren’t being properly acknowledged.
With yet another student death, and given these circumstances, changes need to be made on an institutional level. U of T needs to make its students’ mental health their priority right now, instead of trying to keep their position as Canada’s best university. However, the university has yet to make a statement to students regarding the death. Meanwhile, New College has confirmed the death of Keshav Mayya on November 2, and the University of Toronto Students’ Union has also posted a statement on social media. Days after the incident, U of T’s silence at this time is deafening.
Even before a global pandemic, the university’s approach to mental health was sorely lacking. But now, they need to do better. Referring students to mental health services is essential, but akin to offering a band-aid for a bullet wound. Especially when it isn’t also coupled with a change at the institutional level to alleviate the pressure put on students.
With each passing day lived in the pandemic, there is an ever-increasing need for policies that support students needs. Policies such as providing academic extensions, decreasing penalties for late submissions, and expanding the scope of “extenuating circumstances.” UofT needs to implement a standard plan of action to support its students at this time, rather than leaving academic policies up to the whim of each professor or academic department.