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Students raise concerns about mental health resources at UofT after suicide

Last Updated Mar 21, 2019 at 7:23 am EDT

A recent suicide at Canada’s largest university has students sounding the alarm about what they perceive as a dearth of campus resources to address mental health concerns.

A student death in the computer science building at the University of Toronto over the weekend prompted students to launch a protest and speak out online in a bid to draw attention to what they describe as a crisis.

They complain of long waiting lists and limited options for campus mental health services, a situation the university acknowledges needs to be addressed.

University President Meric Gertler says campuses across the country are seeing massive spikes in demands for mental health supports, taxing what few resources are available and prompting schools including his to try and bolster their offerings.

Gertler says the university is always pursuing ways to improve mental health resources on campus and is still considering the best way to solicit and address feedback from students over recent student deaths.

He confirms there have been two suicides on the university’s downtown campus this academic year, and student say the number rises to three when factoring in another death from last June.

Shervin Shojaei, a third-year political science student who helped organize recent protests, said the deaths tragically illustrate a reality that community members have been contending with on campus for years.

“The point of the protest was to make UofT take the mental health crisis seriously,” Shojaei said. “It is something that many students like myself, we feel that UofT has been negligent on.”

Shojaei said he witnessed the school’s mental health system in action when he tried to seek help during his first year. Getting registered with the system took one to two months, he said, followed by another two months of waiting to land an appointment with a therapist.

Once he succeeded, he said he was limited to weekly sessions that lasted an average of 45 minutes. The service he received was very helpful, he said, but the difficulty in lining up a therapist tainted his experience.

Shojaei said the campus suicides suggests his situation was far from unique.

The latest death took place at the university’s Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

The school initially did not comment and shied away from calling it a suicide when it issued statements two days later. Gertler said that decision was made “in keeping with the preferences of the family.”

Shojaei said the Bahen Centre was the scene of another suicide in June 2018, and Gertler said another student died earlier in the school year at a separate, unspecified location.

The first suicide took place shortly after a new mental health policy came into effect at the school.

That policy, which sought to prevent students from being hit with academic penalties while experiencing mental health crises, introduced a mandatory leave measure that drew concern from the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Chief Commissioner Renu Mandane wrote the school a letter raising red flags about a clause that allowed the university to force students to take a leave of absence in the event of serious mental illness.

“The policy appears to allow the university to immediately put the student on leave and withdraw essential services … at a time when the student is in crisis and most in need of support,” Mandane wrote. “This approach is not consistent with the policy’s intent of preventing harm.”

The university reopened consultations on the policy in response to Mandane’s letter, but the mandatory leave provision remains in place.

Gertler said UofT is “deeply, deeply troubled” by recent events and has been ramping up investments in mental health supports. He said this includes internal counselling staff as well as partnerships with outside organizations.

But he also noted the university is grappling with an issue that’s weighing heavily on post-secondary institutions across the country.

“The number of students presenting at Canadian universities and colleges with serious mental health challenges has doubled in the last five years,” he said. “Our funding to manage these challenges has not … We are certainly struggling to keep up with what seems to be a growing demand.”

At least one PhD student at the school attributes the spike in mental health concerns to an educational culture that she says puts disproportionate emphasis on grades.

Meghan Wright, a teaching assistant in the faculty of dentistry, said she has noticed high anxiety levels among her students in recent years.

“This is an institutional problem that starts all the way in the first year of undergraduate programs,” Wright said. “I would like to bring their attention to what I perceive as increasing student grade anxiety and draw what I see as an obvious link between this high stress environment and the recent unexpected deaths.”