It’s the beginning of the semester at the University of Toronto’s downtown St. George Campus, and there are about three dozen students sitting on the floor of the school’s computer science building, making signs that say things like: “Again?” and “Policies must change.”
It’s just days after a fourth student in less than two years died by suicide at U of T — the third death in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, a very busy public building on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus.
Students are preparing to show up uninvited to an academic council meeting to send a message: the administration isn’t doing enough.
“It’s literally life or death, what is at stake here,” says fifth year computer science student Shahin Imtiaz. “The university has turned into a pressure-cooker of intense demands, without the resources to meet the student needs to back it up.”
After the third death, the administration put up temporary barriers in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology to try to prevent any other deaths. But students of Canada’s largest university — also one of the country’s wealthiest — say other needed changes aren’t happening fast enough.
“Infuriating,” said Aloysius Wong, a third-year student at the downtown campus. “It’s disappointing. I mean, I don’t think I can say one or two words that will really express, like, all the multitude of emotions that each and every one of us are feeling right now.”
For protesters like Wong and Imtiaz, the fact the deaths have continued feels personal. This is Imtiaz’s faculty’s building, she spends much of her day here. For her, there is outrage and profound grief. She watched friends go through difficult times with mental health years ago, and nothing has changed, she says.
“All that suffering was meaningless, no-one learned anything from it, no-one did anything about it. It’s still happening. It’s really tough to reconcile, all this suffering is so needless.”
The group walks briskly with their new signs to stand outside Simcoe Hall, a historical building that flies the university’s flag. They are directly underneath the window where the meeting is taking place. The group is told they are not allowed to attend, so they chant louder.
“How many lives will it take before you fix your mistakes,” they yell.
Eventually, some of the students are allowed to sign in and go upstairs. They make pleas, in front of the administration and board members, asking them to put more money into mental health at the school and reconsider a controversial mandatory leave policy that can force an academic leave on students deemed to be a danger to themselves and others. Outside the cheers, chants and boos of their compatriots who weren’t allowed upstairs can be heard.
It’s the first time the student group has “stormed” (as they say) an academic meeting. But in the weeks to come it won’t be the last. And even as midterms loom and their numbers dwindle, the die-hards among them say they won’t stop until they feel like the university is listening.
“The cost of not doing anything, or not doing anything fast enough, is far too great,” Imtiaz says.
Accessibility of mental health services called into question
Victoria Liao, a recent graduate of University of Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College, tried to reach out for help while she was a student four years ago. She waited several weeks to get into group therapy on campus.
She was two weeks into group therapy, when after a night of drinking, she attempted to take her own life.
“Because it had been an impulse thing I scared myself, and that’s why I went in for help instead of just trying again or doing it while sober or something,” she says. “I went in for help because I didn’t want that.”
Liao went back to campus counselling and was put on a priority list for one-on-one therapy.
“I had no clue exactly how long that list was,” she said. “I had been told you’ll hear within two weeks for a call, which then scheduled an appointment another two, three, however many weeks later. That was frustrating. I didn’t really know what else to do.”
Overwhelmed by the state of her mental health and the pressures of life, she thought the help was coming, so she didn’t try to seek help elsewhere.
In the end, she waited another four weeks for one-on-one therapy.
Eventually, she did get help from the school, but Liao says she feels the road was longer and bumpier than it should have been.
“I got very lucky. Not everyone gets that lucky. But it shouldn’t be about luck,” Liao says.
“It’s clear this isn’t an isolated incident or an isolated couple of situations. This is a crisis that’s ongoing because of a system that’s failing us.”
Now, four years later and with some very public deaths on campus, it’s still not clear what kind of wait time Liao would experience if she was in the same situation today.
Mental health and the ability of students to thrive on campus is a priority, says Sandy Welsh, the vice-provost of students at the University of Toronto. Welsh oversees the health and wellness centres that deliver counselling support on campus. However, Welsh would not say how long the current waiting list for therapy is.
“The range of waiting really varies by individual students and individual cases,” says Welsh.
“We would prefer that there is absolutely no wait list, [that] there’s absolutely no waiting for students to get into see services. And we’re doing our best to see students as quickly as possible.”
The University of Toronto is not alone in dealing with increasing demand for mental health services on campus. Academic institutions across the country are facing skyrocketing mental health needs, forcing academic institutions to grapple with the complexities of providing more support.
CBC News surveyed 30 of Canada’s universities from coast to coast, asking each school nine wide-ranging questions — about suicide on campus, mental health services, the budgets for the services, and how long it takes students to access them — to try to get a national picture of what is happening with campus support systems.
Many schools, like U of T, declined to answer how long their waiting lists are or how many students are on those lists.
Some universities detailed programs and measures they are taking to support students. McGill, for example, has recently created a “Wellness Hub,” calling it a “one-stop shop” for all student health issues. Other schools said they have programs to train faculty and staff to spot and help students in distress.
Students say action isn’t fast enough
U of T has made recent efforts, including adding $3 million to its mental health services budget to boost the number of counsellors. That brings the number of counsellors up to 90, in a school with a population of 90,000 students.
The university won’t divulge how long students are waiting now, but activists like Imtiaz say they still hear frequently from people who tell them they have faced long delays to get mental health support.
The student group she belongs to — the one behind the protests at the University of Toronto, the Mental Health Policy Council — says it has consulted with hundreds of students who report waiting weeks and even months for help.
One of the other issues around which students are asking for change is the university’s mandatory leave policy, which allows the school to put a student on leave, without academic consequences, if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. The school has used the policy eight times in the past year.
Students say the policy is a barrier to students who may want to reach out for help. International students like American Youssef Metwally pay steep tuition. He struggles with depression and anxiety. He says he’s afraid of being kicked out of school and out of the country if he seeks help, since he’s on a student visa.
“If I do get kicked out of school, I’m going to have immigration knocking on my door saying I cannot be here,” he said. “And that made my mental health a lot worse. I don’t see how that policy in any way would help anyone. And it actually pushed me away from reaching out and going to get help.”
The policy was criticized by the Ontario Human Rights Commission for not requiring the school to assist students when they needed the help the most.
Since that criticism, the university has revised the policy to address many of the issues raised, but the commission “remains concerned that in urgent situations the Policy allows the University to withdraw essential services from students who pose a serious risk of harm to themselves without considering the impact on the particular individual or explicitly referencing the University’s duty to accommodate before the leave is initiated.”
Welsh, the vice-provost of students, says the school understands there is a perception problem when it comes to the mandatory leave policy.
“The policy is a process,” she says. “In those rare cases that we’re concerned about a student, the very first thing that we do is we review all of the supports and accommodations that are available to the student. That’s written in the policy, that we’re required to do that. And the first question that I’m asking is, can we do more? Is there more that we can do … before we even consider any kind of leave.”
Welsh also says she acknowledges the frustration of students who are demanding change on campus in very public ways.
“I think students are angry and they want us to do more,” she said.
“I understand that. I want us to do more as well. That is a big priority for me, and for all of the people who are working with me on the mental health issues on campus. So I understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
Meanwhile, Imtiaz and members of her group say they will keep putting pressure on their school to do more, and do it fast.
“Not much has happened, really,” Imtiaz says. “We’re still getting the same responses. So at some point it starts feeling like is anyone really listening?”