In the days following the tragic death of a student at the Bahen Centre on the St. George Campus, the U of T community has taken unprecedented action to tackle the mental health crisis.
Over the weekend following the student’s death, the university erected a temporary safety barrier in the upper levels of Bahen and is pending the completion of a permanent barrier.
“I wish we had done this sooner, but we are focusing on longer-term solutions,” said U of T President Meric Gertler to CBC News.
Among the most profound steps that have been taken regarding student mental health are those by student-led groups.
The U of T Mental Health Policy Committee, a St. George campus student group, held three meetings between September 27 and September 30.
They discussed weighty ideas that they hope will help students who struggle with academic-related stress and mental illnesses.
With over 700 followers on their Facebook page, the committee is growing in momentum and determination to affect change.
In an interview with CBC News, Lucinda Qu, a Mental Health Policy Committee member, detailed the committee’s demands:
“Our key demands are counselling, accessibility services and other essential support for students. [These services] need to match the need that is being demonstrated,” said Qu.
The committee has issued five immediate demands to the university, including the repeal of the University Mandatory Leave of Absence Policy, the elimination of all fees and costs associated with student mental health services, the elimination of program cut-offs, and the establishment of twenty-four-hour counselling.
According to the committee’s demand document, “The UMLAP is a dangerous policy. Having a mandatory leave policy means that students may be afraid to come forward with the issues facing them.”
The first sign of the group’s commitment to create change came Sunday, September 29 when a group of members stormed U of T’s admissions booth at the Ontario Universities Fair.
The group gave a stark warning to the prospective students in which they said the university had failed to address the mental health crisis.
They provided the statistics of student deaths by suicide—four confirmed on-campus suicides—and the number of months a student must wait for counselling—an average of six to eight months at the St. George campus—and urged the crowd to not consider U of T as their first university of choice.
“Please help us ensure no one else slips through the cracks,” said a member of the committee to the crowd. “Please spread the word and do not go to U of T and give this institution money until it is easier to get help when you need it.”
Afterwards, police were called to escort them off the stage. They persisted, nonetheless, in passing out fliers highlighting mental health issues at U of T to the fair attendees.
Last Thursday, the committee also held a silent protest inside the U of T Governing Council’s Academic Board meeting with signs describing students’ stories and the committee’s demands.
The committee continues to organize protests at the downtown campus in order to compel the university administration to accept their demands.
U of T stated last year, following the third on-campus student suicide that their response to the plight of mental health will come through its official Mental Health Task Force.
In addition, the administrations of all three campuses have worked to facilitate additional resources at great cost and in consultation with experts.
During UTM’s Campus Council meeting last Wednesday Dean of Student Affairs Mark Overton stated that UTM does not have specialized mental health supporters and that connecting students with specialists outside UTM makes up the majority of the wait time.
“Recognizing that students typically are seen in a university health and counselling centre much more quickly than they would be if they were in the community,” said Overton. “There is still frequently a gap between what we can provide as generalists in mental health […] to reach them out to meet with specialists in particular mental health disorders in the community.”
Student action on mental health has not only been limited to the St. George campus.
U of Thrive is a tri-campus initiative composed of 24 students from all three campuses and seeks to make a change to the student mental health system at U of T.
In a Facebook post made last Sunday, the initiative stated, “[U of Thrive] formed to eradicate the negative U of Tears culture of normalizing the burning out [of] students. We want to remind our U of T family that neglecting your mental health does NOT equate to success. As the top institution in Canada we are upset with the inadequate care our student body is receiving.”
“U of T is failing us as students and as a community,” U of Thrive continued. “Now it is up to us to make noise, to create a change. To show U of T we won’t merely brush this off and forget. We have lost four members of the U of T family to inadequate care. Will you speak up for the cause?”
U of Thrive is holding its first “Thrive” event on Thursday from 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at the St. George campus in the Hart House Music Room. The event is sponsored by the Hart House Debates and Dialogues committee and the Hart House Social Justice Committee.
On Monday, October 7, before St. George’s Governing Council meets for their scheduled Business Board meeting, U of T Mental Health Policy Committee is lobbying outside Simcoe Hall in hope to bring attention to their demands.
On their Facebook platform the committee calls the event a Rally for Student’s Right to Mental Wellness, and asks students to come at 4:10 p.m., an hour before the Governing Council meeting commences.