Students anxious over Toronto mental health tactics

University tries to allay fears that reporting mental health issues could result in students being barred from campus

April 20, 2021
University of Toronto, mental health policies

The University of Toronto is trying to damp down fears that a policy intended to help its students recover from mental illness is instead aimed at forcing them from campus.

The 2018 policy allows the university to place students on leave if they have serious mental health problems, and it’s raising concern at a moment when the pandemic has increased stress levels across academia.

Nearly half of Toronto’s students have a negative impression of the policy, according to recent survey data reported by the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

About half of the survey’s 135 respondents also said the possibility of being forced out of university made them less likely to voluntarily report mental health concerns to the institution.

The university, however, is calling such worries unfounded, saying the policy has rarely been used and is designed to help students return to their classes rather than kick them out.

“We are working to counter the perception that seeking mental health supports will somehow trigger the mandated leave process,” Toronto said in response to the student fears. “This is simply not the case.”

Even before Covid, mental health was a major issue in college settings. The age group of 15 to 24 is known as the most likely to experience mental illness, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. In Canada’s version of the 2019 National College Health Assessment, more than 60 per cent of the nation’s post-secondary students reported feeling “more than average” or “tremendous” stress.

Various expert assessments have suggested a worsening of stress during the pandemic as students deal with disruptions in routines and the loss of access to friends and other support. That same remote environment, however, makes statistics elusive.

“The data is fuzzy,” said Kevin Kee, dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ottawa, and chair of that university’s president’s advisory committee on mental health and wellness. But, he said, “there are lots of data points to suggest a rise in anxiety and concern; nobody should be surprised by that”.

Toronto’s policy lets institutional leaders place students on leave if their mental health condition poses a threat to themselves or others or prevents them from pursuing their educational work.

But the university said it used that power just eight times during the 2018-19 academic year and once in 2019-20, out of a student population of more than 90,000. “In many of the cases, the students have returned to the classroom or are in the process of doing so,” the university said.

Toronto is facing additional scepticism, however, from high-profile cases such as a student who reportedly came to its health and counselling centre in 2019 describing suicidal feelings and ended up being handcuffed by police and taken to a hospital. There, a psychiatrist said she needed only to be sent home with plans for follow-up visits.

The government-founded Mental Health Commission of Canada issued in October what it called the “first of its kind in the world” set of policies for post-secondary institutions to promote positive mental health among their students.

Ed Mantler, the commission’s vice-president for programmes and priorities, who helped draft the guidelines, said the commission acted in part because of the diversity of approaches at Canadian universities.

Professor Kee said he couldn’t comment on Toronto’s practice, but said it appeared to be “a well-intentioned policy that’s not punitive”, even if some students felt otherwise.

“This is a challenge we face on every campus,” Professor Kee said.

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