Warning: the following article includes discussion of suicide, trauma, and mental distress
The sound of sirens paired with the flashing lights of police and ambulance cars lit up the dark space surrounding the Bahen Centre for Information Technology on Friday, the 27th of September 2019. At 6:26 pm on Friday night, Toronto Paramedic Services were called to the building. Shortly after their arrival at the scene, emergency services evacuated the building. The death of another student was confirmed.
The University of Toronto has the blood of another student on its hands and enough is enough. The mental health crisis at UofT is costing the lives and wellbeing of its many students and families. This calls for immediate action that extends far beyond the line of necessity.
Twitter post written by U of T the day after the incident (Source: Twitter)
In the wake of the death of yet another student, we cannot help but wonder how many times UofT will be copying and pasting the same Tweet or Facebook post. Once is unacceptable. Four times leaves us lost for words.
UofT’s mental health crisis is nothing new to the community. Following the first reported suicide on June 24th, 2018, UofT has found itself entangled in a toxic cycle that has grown far too familiar amongst its community. We, as a community, are facing a crisis that is putting the lives of our very own students at risk. Among the grief, outrage, and tireless cries for help, a tragic yet familiar question arises—"how and why has this happened again?”
This incident on Friday marks the third death at the Bahen Centre in under a year, and the fourth reported suicide on campus in less than two years—headlines that should never have to be written, and stories that we should never have to report.
The real pain that the U of T community is facing cannot be silenced. The U of T community calls on the administration to implement immediate and institutional change to address the mental health emergency that is darkening the campus day by day. Grieving the death of another student and friend, the community mourns the loss of lives that have been taken far too soon and fears the question of how many more lives remain vulnerable to the university’s inadequate recognition of the mental health crisis on its hands.
I stood in silence in front of a table of condolence letters and flowers set-up inside of the Bahen Centre thinking to myself “How did we get here again?”, certain that I was not the only one facing the heavy-hearted question that has left so many in disbelief and sheer frustration.
It wasn’t so long ago that the student body stood outside President Meric Gertler’s office in March in protest, demanding that the U of T administration be held accountable for their lack of accessible and effective mental health support and services on campus. While students have made countless calls for essential mental health initiatives, such as increased funding for health and wellness resources, 24-hour counseling services, and a re-evaluation of the productivity of health and wellness services at U of T, these demands have acquired a pending status that have yet to be put into action by those that sit at the head of the table in administration.
Where money gets involved, it appears that this is the only thing that has the power to truly shake up U of T—removing the crucial human aspect inherent in mental health concerns that are present in the large academic institution. Like taking candy away from a baby, if intentionally depriving U of T of their economic prosperity is what it takes for this academic institution to realize that they are nothing without their students and their families, then so be it. As students, we ask, "Where are the consequences for such negligence?"
The disintegrating status of students’ wellbeing and mental health at U of T cannot be another tale of ‘same old same old’. The toxic culture of ‘stress=success’ that has driven U of T’s academic agenda and has been embodied by its students to unhealthy lengths is now being thrown back into the administration's face. The question however remains; Will anything change?
Following the reported suicide in March that sent waves of sadness and outrage across campus, U of T set up emergency meetings, grief councilors, and displayed pamphlets of mental health resources throughout campus in the wake of the tragedy. This lasted a week. In a similar fashion, memorial stands and councilors throughout campus will be actively available for the next week until the death of our fellow student becomes ‘just another suicide on campus’. This is a train of thought that no student or family should ever have to get used to hearing.
(Source: Mélina Lévesque)
While U of T has set in motion the installation of temporary structural barriers within the Bahen Centre to improve its safety following the tragic incident on Friday night, this is not addressing the larger problem at hand. Instead, discussions of implementing safety measures or a night-watch are ensuring the student community that 'the next time’ someone tries to take their own life, at the very least there will be a net to catch them. The installation is simply a buffer that blurs the urgency of a far greater problem—that students are suffering in silence.
Based on the recommendation on behalf of students following the first death, U of T’s announcement of changes to the building that now makes students’ hearts heavy is a step in the right direction, but one that was taken far too late.
“We are not funded by the provincial government to be a health care-delivering organization.” Said President Gertler in an interview with The Varsity.
While shifting responsibility to the provincial government for U of T’s inadequacy in mental health resources is not escaping the root of the problem, Ford’s $335 million cuts from mental health funding in July of 2018 has had twofold impacts on both students’ financial assistance and access mental health resources within their institution. Additionally, the aftermath of OSAP cuts has not made accessing critical mental health resources any easier.
Rightfully so, while a portion of the funding aspect can be directed towards the provincial government, blame shifting does not remove from the fact that the University of Toronto is complicit to the struggles of a community of students that are being ripped apart by an urgent mental health crisis. Money or not, the silent suffering of students at the University of Toronto must be acted on. It is unacceptable to face the possibility of other looming deaths in the U of T community—a message that does not seem to be as hard-hitting for administration.
In a large institution such as the University of Toronto where it can be easy to fade into the background and go unnoticed, students are coming together in ways that remind us that we are all in this fight together.
Protests have taken place, demands have been made, and student advocacy remains strong. In the spring of 2019, a group of 15 students produced and published a powerful report “Nothing About Us Without Us” expressing the voices of students demanding a change to mental health inaccessibility and ignorance present on campus. Alongside the eye-opening and impassionate report, "How Many Lives" (online) and the U of T Mental Health Policy Council are two campaigns that intend on bringing advocacy for a critical and much-needed change in the way mental health concerns often go unrecognized in such a large institution such as U of T.
As I sat on the subway on Monday evening, a father and his young daughter stood in front of me. The little girl had a contagious smile and a priceless sparkle of happiness in her eyes as she laughed in her father’s arms. Such a pure sight reminded me that we are all somebody’s child, someone’s family member, and someone’s friend.
We all start out this way. As innocent children who eventually grow up and follow our own paths. We go through life hoping that we will be able to tackle the obstacles that we encounter and overcome the challenges that life sometimes throws at us.
The death at Bahen on Friday reminds us of the following:
A parent has lost a child. A family member has lost their loved one. A family that once treasured the smile and laugh on their child’s face is now a sight that they will never be able to see again.
By the time one’s invisible suffering becomes visible, it is already too late. We cannot stand for this any longer. This Is an emergency UofT. Your students are suffering and immediate change must be taken.
If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:
- Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
- Good2Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
- Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
- Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-926-5200
- U of T Health and Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030
Warning signs of suicide include:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention