A number of students gathered at the Hart House Debate Room on October 22 to hear about the new policies University of Toronto leaders will implement to deal with the mental health crisis on campus.
The panel, hosted by the Hart House Debates and Dialogues Committee, acknowledged the role academics play in mental health. The administrators vowed to work around the aging mental health system on campus, assuring students they will build a holistic response to the crisis.
The panel featured the Dean of Students for New, Trinity, and University College as well as representatives from the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) and a former Mental Health Coordinator from the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM).
The moderator for the panel, Garvia Bailey, a journalist and a producer for Pop Sandbox, a multimedia production company based in Toronto, began the session by asking how the participants have seen mental health evolve on campus.
Ms. Elsie Obeng-Kingsley, a representative from UTSC, said that within the past three years, the volume of students coming to seek counseling has increased.
Her sentiments were supported by other panel members who spoke of the University’s initiative to hire more staff in order to meet the growing demand.
Chad Jankowski, a former Mental Health Coordinator at UTM who now works at the University of Toronto’s St. George campus (UTSG), said that it was “easy to throw shade at the system.” He also stressed that at times there is a lack of coordination among mental health systems at U of T, and communication between students and administrators is corrupted by misunderstandings.
He went on to say that the University has had a very proactive response to mental health, but due to the sensitivity of the issue, much of the university’s response has happened in secrecy.
In addition, other panel members spoke of how the structure of academia has radically changed since their years in college. Several members noted that students are more incentivized to go to graduate school immediately after graduation and that there was increased pressure on students to get a high GPA in university.
Bailey then questioned the administrators on whether they felt structurally equipped to deal with the crisis. In response, some members spoke of how an institution as vast as U of T would have inherent difficulty in achieving rapid change.
Kristen Moore, the Dean of Students at Trinity College, said that “there can always be more resources” and “money can help with innovation.” She called for a holistic approach that would involve all members of the U of T community, including professors, staff, and students, to help fight the crisis.
She also pleaded for a greater sense of resilience among students, and for students to enhance the university’s sense of community.
The most contentious point of the forum came when Bailey asked, “How can we address polices that supposedly have good intentions but can worsen mental health?” As an example, she highlighted the University-Mandated Leave of Absence of policy, and which the panel vigorously defended.
Dr. Melinda Scott, Dean of Students at University College, spoke of how the policy actually helps some students avoid academic suspension or overt financial hardships as a result of the crisis that they are facing.
She said the policy is “valuable to students who are ill.” In addition, she stated that there is a very high bar for the policy to be enacted. Scott highlighted that in the past there were students who communicated their suicidal thoughts but were not placed under mandated leave to emphasize the high bar of the policy.
The policy was further discussed during a Q&A session when a student asked why there have been incidences in which students who sought help were escorted off campus in handcuffs.
Obeng-Kingsley said that this only occurs if there is an imminent risk of the student harming themselves or staff. She emphasized that the procedure is done with discreteness. Jackets are placed over the handcuffs and the student is escorted quietly off campus.
The panel concluded with the administrators highlighting student involvement in the Mental Health Task Force. They said that student representatives were very involved in the consultations and they hoped that student involvement would lead to accountability for the administration.
Discussions on mental health were not limited to the Hart House panel. On October 24, the student-led U of T Mental Health Policy Council protested at the U of T’s Governing Council meeting.
A Mental Health Policy Council representative at the protest said the Governing Council “rejected our request to speak about the fight for mental health supports and our work supporting students.”
As the University Ombudsperson, an independent and impartial counsellor to public complaints to institute administration, Hodnett is required to present an annual report to the Governing Council.
During her report to the Governing Council, Hodnett said she reviewed the eight cases in which the UMLAP was applied and was impressed by the university’s treatment of the cases. She commended U of T and the UMLAP.
“In my 44 years here, I have never been prouder to be associated with the University of Toronto — seeing the extreme care, diligence, respectfulness and compassion with which the policy was applied in each case,” said Hodnett to UTM News.
“Students are now being offered the help they need without ending up with police records and an expulsion from the university,” continued Hodnett.
Addressing the student protests groups at the Governing Council meeting Hodnett said the misinformation of the UMLAP is a concerning topic.
“The mandated leave policy is both evidence-based and fair,” said Hodnett. “The continuing protests against the policy are neither evidence-based nor fair.” Following the meeting, the UTSU’s Executive Committee sent an open letter to Professor Ellen Hodnett, the University Ombudsperson, asking for a formal apology for her comments on the University-Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) and misplaced student activism.
According to the UTSU’s open letter, Hodnett thanked the student groups for their views on the UMLAP but stated the broad consensus on the policy was unsupported.
“Dr. Hodnett accused students of using on-campus deaths as a way to critique UMLAP,” said the UTSU Executive Committee according to the open letter.
“The fact that you,” said the Executive Committee, addressing Hodnett, “told those at this meeting that you are ‘proud’ to be a part of a policy that has been criticized by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and has served as an active detriment to students seeking mental health support on this campus, speaks volumes about your views on listening to us.”
The UTSU Annual General Meeting, where they present their past work and ongoing initiatives, will be held on October 30 from 6:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at the Innis Town Hall.