On October 2, a UTM student was handcuffed by campus police at the Health and Counselling Centre (HCC) for seeming “at risk.”
Natalia Espinosa, a third-year anthropology student, was experiencing suicidal ideation and went to the HCC on campus to seek professional help. Joined by her friend, Anita Mozaffari, they went to get the process started so Espinosa could eventually see a psychiatrist on campus.
The HCC receptionist told Espinosa the process would require appointments with several mental health support counsellors before seeing a psychiatrist.
Espinosa was let in to see a nurse in the meantime so they could draft a safety plan. The nurse approved Espinosa’s plan to not be alone, and to stay the night at Mozaffari’s house.
Then, the nurse called campus police.
“The nurse informed us that, as was protocol, she would call the campus police to come and speak with us,” said Espinosa. “We were told to expect a 10 to 15-minute conversation with them, and then we could go home.”
Two campus police officers escorted the girls out of the HCC waiting room, where other students sat waiting for their appointment, to another secluded room. Espinosa explained her safety plan with the officers and was then told they would have to “arrest” her and take her to the hospital.
The officers did not elaborate on what the “arrest” would mean for Espinosa or if it would be recorded on her criminal record.
“I insisted with a clear mind and voice that I would fully cooperate with them, and that an arrest […] was not necessary,” said Espinosa.
Espinosa was told there was no alternative option and that arresting and handcuffing her was mandatory according to U of T protocol.
“It was shocking to realize that I was about to be arrested, when all I wanted was the comfort and help of professionals. Especially since I have previously been in other hospitals for the same concerns and have never been treated this way during admittance,” said Espinosa.
Upon being told she was being arrested, handcuffed, and escorted to the hospital in a police car against her will, Espinosa began to cry and hyperventilate.
“The police were unresponsive to my hyperventilation. Frankly, they seemed not to know what to do. It was Anita who was able to calm me down simply through talking to me and helping me breathe,” said Espinosa.
An officer wrapped a jacket over her handcuffed hands and escorted Espinosa through the campus to the police car outside the Recreation, Athletics and Wellness Centre (RAWC). She was then taken to Credit Valley Hospital where she received support from staff.
Espinosa and Mozaffari have filed an official complaint to U of T. They also brought the issue of handcuffing students who appear to be having a mental health crisis forward at U of Thrive on October 10.
Beverly Bain, a professor of Women and Gender Studies at the Department of Historical Studies, has been actively supporting Espinosa and Mozaffari in their efforts to call for policy reform.
“Why students are being handcuffed, it makes no sense to me,” said Bain.
“The police represent the law. When police come, it means they are arresting you. When they put you in handcuffs, it’s an arrest. People with mental health issues should not be arrested. People who go for help should not be arrested. They are not criminals. They are in crisis and they need support.”
Bain believes the university should reconsider the manner in which mental health concerns are supported on campus. Bain argues that the university should hire more counsellors to decrease wait times at the HCC, provide a private cab for when students need to be escorted to the hospital for mental health assistance, and have an emergency mental health service ready so students can be accompanied to the hospital with counsellors or professional crisis workers.
“They had invoked a policy in the interest of protecting themselves, not of protecting students. If they want to protect students, they would not be handcuffing them […] That can only serve to heighten students’ anxiety and agitation, and not in any way deal with the issue at hand.”
The HCC offers different types of clinical staff for several mental health concerns, including a full-time mental health nurse, regular nursing staff, family physicians, psychiatrists, and personal counsellors.
“We try to match mental health supports to the specific needs and situation that each student identifies when they come to the HCC, or through their initial appointment with one of our staff members,” said Erin Kraftcheck, Medical Director of the HCC at UTM.
According to Kraftcheck, if students show concern for their mental health or safety “either verbally or through a brief screening form,” they will be asked to meet a nurse for some initial support and assessment. The nurse will also work to arrange an appointment with a counsellor or mental health nurse with the student in the meantime.
If the situation requires other support, said Kraftcheck, then the emergency department at the Credit Valley Hospital will be contacted, where the student can undergo further assessment and support in that moment. Campus police are called to escort “at risk” students to Credit Valley Hospital.
The HCC is also currently experiencing staffing shortages for personal counselling.
“This is due to a variety of unforeseen reasons that have resulted in staff members being away from the office,” said Kraftcheck. “We are actively working on ways to resolve this temporary shortage of counselling appointments.”
“There may be some delays experienced for one-hour counselling appointments, but all students seeking mental health support will continue to receive triage, assessment, and opportunity to meet with the variety of clinicians that we have available.”
In a statement sent to The Medium, Director of campus police Robert Messacar stated that he was unable to comment on specific cases.
“Situations are sometimes fluid and evolve quickly. The steps taken depend on the officers’ assessment of the situation. Such measures are taken to ensure the safety of all parties involved, including the individual in mental health distress.”
This story is developing. More to come.