Broken Promises on Behalf of U of T

Content warning: The following content includes discussions of suicide, trauma, and mental distress

"Our highest priority 

Before I continue, I would like to emphasize that the success and wellbeing of our students—mental and physical—is the University’s highest priority. Students are at the heart of our mission as an academic institution. When we learn that one of our students is suffering or struggling, we want to help. And when a student suffering from mental illness or severe emotional distress dies by suicide, we are devastated and heartbroken.” Excerpt from President Gertler on student mental health at U of T, March 28th, 2019.

While Meric Gertler’s letter offers sentiments of support, condolence, promise to actively improve U of T’s inefficient mental health policies, the words that intended to resonate with students, faculty, and staff merely stand as empty promises and written words lacking substance. U of T can post their available resources on any form of social media or web page that they like but, the fact of the matter is, that nothing is going to change unless proactive action is taken. Resources such as Campus Police and Health and Wellness Center merely exist in their advertisement on web pages and student handbooks under the tab “resources” and fail in taking an active presence in student’s lives. 

These resources are reduced to being simply performative and, by extension, neglectful of, not only the progressing severity of student mental health at U of T but, more importantly, the inability that students feel to safely reach out for help when they need it. 

While students ought to feel safe to reach out to necessary resources such as such in moments of distress, U of T has created an environment where asking for help is both a burden and an inconvenience that is disruptive to the way the success-driven academic institution is expected to run. 

Late into the night of November 4th, 2019, the Campus Police at U of T received a call from Hart House staff regarding someone in distress in the building. As three cops began to surround the individual, he continued to profusely cry for help. The police officers eventually grabbed him and threw him out into the cold, telling him “don’t come back here”.  

Another student that was there at the type captured these moments and was appalled by what they were seeing. “The front desk and facilities staff initiated this, then watched all of it happen silently, eventually saying to me they were just following instructions,” said the student who captured what happened, “People are literally dying and struggling on this campus right now. I’m not sure how to explain to people that ‘changing policy’ isn’t what should motivate you to treat people with dignity and that ‘following orders’ isn’t an excuse to throw people out into the night in the middle of a crisis moment.”

Image source: Facebook post by Eli Ak 05/11/19 

5 days after yet another student took their own life on U of T’s St. George Campus, a third-year student at The University of Toronto Mississauga was handcuffed by campus police while seeking help for suicidal thoughts and fearing the safety of her own life. While the student had previously tried to see a campus psychiatrist, they were told the same thing that many U of T students have become far too use to hearing—that it could take months to get an appointment.

Unable to contact a nurse specializing in mental health in this moment of crisis, Anita Mozaffari, the student’s friend, said that they met with another nurse where they devised a “safety plan,” for the rest of the night. This included staying at Mozaffari’s house. Before the Mozaffari and her friend were able to leave, the nurse informed them that, according to protocol, they had to speak with the campus police. Before Mozaffari knew it, her friend was being handcuffed by two officers. 

“[They] told me to stand up and turn around. In that moment, I started to panic,” she said in an interview with CBC. “I had no mental professional with me to tell me what’s happening…I had to ask them why this was happening, and they let me know that it was protocol.” 

The student’s hyperventilation and tears did not stop the campus police from escorting her through a crowded building on campus, where she was humiliated and painted as a criminal that had committed a crime that deserved to be put on display. 

The criminalization of students who are seeking mental health help is an option that no one wants to be able to wrap their head around. Instead of gaining a sense of strength in reaching out for help, students are made to feel as though they are doing something wrong and unnatural. While U of Tmay respond to the mental health needs of students by acknowledging that they “need to do everything that we can to ensure their success” and that they “want to make sure that they know where to turn when indeed they have the need for more support”, students cannot help but wonder conclude that this “open-arms” approach is just for show. 

“By the time you reach Campus Police, I think that that already signifies that it’s already too late. You haven’t been able to get the help you needed from your own university and are in this moment of hopelessness,” said Mark, a 2nd year student at U of T, “Seems to me like this protocol that they keep talking about isn’t making students feel any better.”

 

Image source: Pexels.com

If the said “protocol” for attending to students in distress ranges from mocking, neglecting, and handcuffing students, students can’t help but feel discouraged to reach out for support, reducing the current mental health crisis at U of T to silence. The stories of student suffering underneath an inadequate system of addressing mental health concerns at one of Canada’s top universities have become far too familiar. As more student stories come to surface, the mental health crisis on campus is pushed further towards problematic desensitization. What does this mean? The silent suffering of students is reduced to being “just the way it is” here at U of T. 

In the wake of these stories, students find themselves heavily disappointed as their powerful pleas for change seem to be pushed aside for the sake of maintaining the university’s plausible academic standing. Maddie, a fourth-year student at U of T says that the University is not doing enough to address one of the most dominant concerns when it comes to cultivating a healthy student life environment. “I feel like all the work that we’re doing, everything that we’ve asked for, everything that we are trying to do is being pushed under the rug. Mental health is a real concern that is impacting real people, and I don’t know what it is going to take for this university to understand that” she said. 

“I’ve waited months for an appointment. The truth is that this university does not have enough resources and is not taking the lives of its students seriously enough. The President can say whatever he wants but the truth is that it isn’t getting any better,” said Mark,“I shouldn’t have to wait for the next big thing to happen for yet another call to action. These things are happening every day and only getting worse.” 

Whether its the long waiting times to speak with professionals or the lack of open conversation about mental health on campus, students are calling for an active re-evaluation of what mental health means at U of T and in other universities. While several meetings between student advocacy groups and U of T admin have been held to address the larger mental health crisis at hand, the move towards making any meaningful changes seems to be all talk and little action. 

In the wake of a student’s death at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology last year in March, U of T President Meric Gertler announced for the formation of the Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, geared towards reviewing the tri-campus services and supports, or lack thereof, offered to students and looking for ways to improve them. The task force recently released its Draft Summary of Themes, outlining the greatest concerns shared by students, staff, and faculty based on the task force’s work over the last few months. While the task force is advertised as a force of change, their intention has been criticized for being largely performative.

Taskforce or not, the topic of mental health among university students should not solely arise in times of crisis. While initiating a conversation on students’ mental health concerns is important, speaking about these concerns out loud can only go so far. Taking proactive action needs to be the next step if U of T is to see a change in the health and overall happiness of its student population.  Students and families should not have to anticipate yet another piece of breaking news reflecting U of T’s neglect of their students. Whether it is students being thrown out into the cold or handcuffed after seeking out help, this is not what urgently addressing a mental health crisis looks like. 

Letters of promise can be written, and drafts of bullet-pointed suggestions can be published. In the eyes of students, these are but empty promises that leave them with little to believe that what they are reading will actually turn into effective actions.