On January 15, the Student Mental Health Task Force released their findings and recommendations in their final report to the university.
The Task Force covered four key areas including the delivery of mental health services, the internal coordination between student supports, partnerships with external organizations, and the physical spaces of the Health and Counselling Centre (HCC) across all three campuses.
The report also discussed the “Culture at U of T” and future research initiatives on mental health at the university, which went beyond the “original scope of the mandate” the Task Force was assigned by U of T.
The Permanent Mental Health Body (PMHB), a recently established student organization focused on gathering academic departments together to discuss student mental health protocol and regulations, believes that the Task Force could have gone further in their consultations.
Under mandate one, which discusses the delivery of student mental health services on campuses, the Task Force stated that while they “understand that additional funding allocations may be necessary to address the need and respond to recommendations put forward in this report, it is beyond the scope of our mandate to advise on specific allocations or increases.”
Graeme Littlemore, co-president of PMHB, told The Medium that the university needs to be more transparent about student mental health services’ funding allocations so the communities involved can work with and understand the monetary estimates.
“Why is this not in the scope of the mandate to recommend at the university level what appropriate funding towards mental health services would look like?” asked Littlemore. “That way we can begin to work with an actual number in relation to the university’s allocation of their endowment and at the same time give the province an idea of what is a number they should strive to match.”
Littlemore also highlighted how simple strategies to inform students of mental health services on campus have been overlooked.
Under recommendation one, which asks the university to increase student accessibility to resources and supports, the Task Force suggests that U of T “create a single, easy to navigate, user-friendly web presence for mental health at U of T that local sites [can] link to instead of duplicating.”
To this, Littlemore asked, “why does the HCC not clearly outline on their website the protocols for mental health parameters?”
Since the HCC website is the primary source of information for the center’s regulations and procedures, Littlemore wondered why the website was not more accessible in the first place, or transparent with their protocol.
Regarding recommendation six, in which the Task Force recommends U of T “enhance coordination and expand direct crisis response support and resources and establish a tri-campus mobile team for after-hours support,” Littlemore questioned the depth of the Task Force’s consideration of police assistance.
“This is the only mention of police involvement where it might not be necessary,” said Littlemore, quoting the final report. “How does this deal with concerns at UTM of tactful de-escalation without police involvement, with specific emphasis of the handcuffing incident?”
Discouraged to see how the final report glazes over how campus police have handcuffed students seeking mental health support, a critical point of concern for UTM students as of late, Littlemore is troubled over how the report seems to shift the blame.
“Is the implication that the culprit for police involvement is overworked and strained staff?” asked Littlemore. “How does this then lead to the police getting involved?”
Similarly, professor Beverly Bain, who teaches Women and Gender Studies in the Department of Historical Studies at UTM, is concerned about the police involvement that the report states “might otherwise not be required” if the campus had after-hours support.
“[The Task Force’s final report] did mention that there will be a review of the handcuffing issue, but there is no framework for that in the context of speaking about the way that it works within the criminalized context,” said Bain. “That the reason why handcuffing is a problem [is that it] criminalizes students.”
“Not only does it traumatize,” added Bain. “But it criminalizes and it’s the criminalizing effect that traumatizes [students].”
Additionally, Bain is concerned about recommendation two and nine, where the Task Force suggests that the university’s community members like faculty and staff should be trained in mental health literacy and early intervention.
“What I am seeing, and what I am uncomfortable with, is [that] it seems to be [an] offloading of additional work onto staff, faculty, and student bodies that actually already provide support to students,” said Bain.
“Our job is to teach and to do research. Our job is not to counsel students,” added Bain. “If you’re going to be offloading work onto the backs of faculty administration and others, what supports are there for us? It will have an impact on our primary work [of] teaching.”
In the final report, the Task Force also stressed that while hiring more counselors will help, it is the effective reallocation of mental health supports that will decrease wait times.
But in order to readjust this offloading of work, Bain determines that hiring more mental health staff and resources is necessary.
“They need to hire more people, said Bain. “They need to put money into expanding the health center and creating more private spaces which they said they will do and creating more spaces for more counselors to come in and do that work.”
In regard to recommendation five, where the “diversity of mental health service providers for students” is emphasized, Bain believes that the mental health support framework at the university needs to account for students with intersectional experiences.
“I would argue that this report itself lacks a framework that understands different issues that particular intersections have,” said Bain. “Issues will come up to students who are racialized, who are LGBT people, who are trans, who have a disability, because it does not have that framework center.”
Atif Abdullah, the president of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), said that while the Task Force’s final report shows extensive consultations with students and the UTM community, there are still a few issues that are not being reviewed at length.
“We haven’t had a chance to actually sit down and have that conversation with the folks of the Mental Health Task Force,” said Abdullah. “[But] we did go through the final reportand I can say that there are portions of it that we do appreciate, and we do think are good ideas.”
“So, to me that is a positive that the consultations were not just for the sake of having them, they were actually taken seriously,” added Abdullah.
In particular, Abdullah is conflicted on U of T’s decision to pass on the management of student mental health services to an external organization like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
“While we definitely respect the need to bring in someone who has a little bit more experience within the mental health criteria, it’s also not enough to sort of pass on the responsibility to an outside organization and sort of leave it to them to figure out what to do right,” said Abdullah.
Nevertheless, Abdullah believes that the Task Force’s final report is a step in the right direction to improve the treatment of student mental health at U of T.
“We do want to give credit where its due, where it talked about integrated mental health support. And that being a key focus on something the UTMSU has been talking about for a year,” said Abdullah. “That was something we talked about at the consultations, [and] that’s been talked about in QSS [Quality Services for Students] for HCC.”
Erin Kraftcheck, the director of the HCC, stated that the U of T is currently implementing the mental health initiatives they outlined in the administrative response to the Task Force’s final report.
“The Task Force[’s] Student Mental Health report and U of T’s response were recently released,” said Kraftcheck. “And UTM’s Health and Counselling Centre, along with our colleagues at the St. George and Scarborough campuses, are working to implement the recommendations.”
“More information will be available this term as details are worked through,” added Kraftcheck.