Reaction to Inaction: U of T's Growing Mental Health Crisis

Trigger Warning - mention of suicide, mental illness

Edited by Tasmiyah Randeree

We have all heard the news. 

We have all sat down, numb and vulnerable. 

We have all gotten dizzy, wondering if they were someone we knew, anxious at the lack of information.

We have all called our closest friends, crying if it goes to voicemail, and crying if they pick up. 

Even if they were someone we did not know, it is still a huge blow. 

 

And so the students have mobilised. 

Student collectives have a long history of speaking up when the administration stays quiet and taking action when the administration remains inactive. Through protests, petitions, strikes, and student groups, we have always made it a point to make our voices heard. This has only accelerated with the rise of social media, which allows students to organize and aggregate together quickly and smoothly. Social media epitomizes the concept of “speaking out,” and so it is a useful resource to unify students together to make our voices heard by a growing sphere of influence. The most common way to do this is through Facebook events, and we see these regularly. For example, “Protest UofT’s Inaction” was an event created to get students to both acknowledge and mourn the tragic suicide that took place within the week, as well as to demand that the administration break their silence and take meaningful action. 

Another example of this flavour of student action is the How Many Lives movement, spurred on by the three suicides that have plagued UofT since the beginning of last year. The movement has made strides in raising awareness about the importance of having an open dialogue about students’ mental health and the crucial need for reform. It has also used social media to spread its message across the student community. The page created a Facebook filter that you can add to your profile picture, and this has been adopted by hundreds of students, showing the UofT community that we are all in this together. Suicide is like a stone that leaves an ongoing ripple. In particular, all the students who knew the victims of the three suicides have a higher relative risk: they are now more likely to suffer from similar intrusive thoughts, and so action is necessary now more than ever. Even a small act like a Facebook filter breaks the silence that the administration has let linger, and encourages students dealing with both mental illness and the plethora of stresses at university to reach out and speak up. 

 

[Above: Me pictured with the How Many Lives? filter. The filter can be added to your Facebook by visiting their Facebook page and following the instructions posted.]

 

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The second problem is that as more and more students are reaching out to effectively take care of their mental health, we are facing multiple obstacles to actually attaining the help we need. Furthermore, these obstacles do not have ‘quick-fixes,’ they require a lot of structural reform. Here are some of the pressing problems that need to be dealt with: 

 

1. Admissions and POSt culture 

Being admitted into U of T probably feels like a long long time ago for most of us. It probably sits in our heads as a happy ‘lets-pop-some-champagne’ kind of memory. After all, we were admitted into what is arguably the most competitive school in the country. However, this is already the beginning of the problem. U of T has earned a reputation of admitting a pool of students larger than they actually desire, and then weeding out a percentage of them through toxic competition and program requirements. This is evident in the admission requirements between U of T and comparable universities like McGill; the requirements to be admitted are lower. However, staying in once we are admitted is the greater problem. The transition between high school and a university is more difficult for students who believed they were set out for the rigour of undergraduate study at U of T. In many cases, the conditions for POSt in highly competitive programs are ridiculously high, and the university creates artificial scarcity to retain the prestige of competitiveness. Indeed, the most recent victim of suicide was a first-year student in Computer Science, which is especially notorious for its POSt requirements. Students see themselves as numbers, as in the case of engineering where all students are given an individual ranking compared to the rest of their student cohort. This is provenly detrimental to the mental health of students. Instead of admitting an unbelievably large amount of students to increase their tuition gains and wait for the ‘strong’ to triumph, the university should nurture each individual student admitted, so that they are able to reach their greatest potential. We need structural reform within the admissions process and the POSt system for already stressful programs. 

 

2. Mandated-Leave 

The notorious mandated-leave policy is one approved by the U of T administration that could forcibly put students with mental health issues on school leave. While this policy has been qualified as a ‘last-resort,’ one that would be implemented if other accommodations are unsuccessful or infeasible, this has an underlying assumption that students are usually successful in getting their accommodation needs. This is clearly not the case. Students find it difficult getting accommodation in the first place, being subject to multiple evaluations by different departments in the university. I have heard of students having to go through three separate evaluations because each block of bureaucracy needs to ‘ensure they have their own reliable results.’ This is an unnecessarily lengthy process and so most students do not seek the help they need. Additionally, if students are able to gain accommodation, they can still find themselves disadvantaged; for example, during exams, students who have accommodations are usually put in separate rooms with invigilators that have limited knowledge about the test being administered. This has led to multiple instances of miscommunication about testing conditions and last-minute changes, coupled with a lack of effective answers where TA’s would be more knowledgeable and helpful. In fact, I had a friend once tell me that upon entering her accommodation-friendly testing room for our microeconomics midterm, she was told she was not allowed to use a ruler (anyone who has taken a microeconomics course knows how laughable this is). So, to suggest that this policy is a contingency in the off-chance that accommodation is unsuccessful is problematic. Moreover, barring these students from living on campus simply diverts the problem elsewhere; it eliminates the university’s liability, and more than likely isolates the student(s) in question further. Similar to the idea of adding "safety-nets" in Bahen, it is a way to say “don’t do it here.”

 

3. Long-term mental health care 

The Health and Wellness Centre tries. It tries to meet the growing needs of students with regards to their mental health. After all, there are only so many appointments that can be booked given the number of doctors, counsellors, and psychiatrists available. However, it is undoubtedly obvious that the demand outweighs the current supply. Students are faced with ludicrously long wait times, up to 6 weeks in some cases. Often, getting specialized treatment can take longer. We all know this is the case, it has gotten to the point where these problems have become business-as-usual, and have even become comical. 

 

[Source: a UofT Facebook meme page "UofT Memes for Edgy Teens"]

 

One of the lesser known problems of UofT’s mental health care is its instability. For example, college-specific counsellors are available to talk to, and they are often made the first point of contact for distressed students. The problem is that a student can only ever take 6 sessions with these counsellors, and so it is very short term. The sessions often end with a referral to health and wellness if the problem persists (which it often does, considering 6 sessions is not enough to unpack trauma or mental illness). Then, students have to go through the entire process again of sharing their distress with another person. If the student needs to be referred to a psychiatrist, this process has to be repeated for a third time with a new person. This is such a flawed system. Taking into account the wait times between these sessions, appointments, and referrals, it can take many months just to get a diagnosis, let alone a treatment. Most students facing mental health issues cannot wait that long. We need help now. And we should not need to use the threat of hurting ourselves as a means to get ‘up on the priority list.’ Going through so many counsellors and doctors also has the effect of draining students out, as these evaluations can be mentally taxing! Ultimately, the university needs to allocate a larger budget to mental health resources because it is a priority, and it is obvious student demands are not being met. Wait times need to be reduced, and students should have the stability of a single therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist, at the time of their lives when they are most unstable. Long term mental health care is vital to the welfare of students. 

 

Three lives is too many. 

Three steps is not. 

 

To the University of Toronto, you can do better. 

Sincerely,

Your Students.

 

UofT has a wide variety of mental health services. If you or anyone you know are suffering from mental illness and/or depression, reach out to at least one of the support systems found here or here. Seek the help you need, you should not suffer alone.