Toronto

U of T president says safety barriers should have been set up earlier to prevent suicide

The University of Toronto's president says the school should have erected temporary safety barriers sooner in a computer science building where students and a union active on campus say a student died by suicide last Friday.

'We all wish that we had done that sooner,' Meric Gertler says

University of Toronto President Meric Gertler says he wishes the school had set up temporary safety barriers sooner in a building where a student died last weekend. Unions active on campus are describing the incident as a suicide. (CBC)

The University of Toronto's president says the school should have erected temporary safety barriers sooner in a computer science building where students and a union active on campus say a student died by suicide last Friday.

The university confirmed the death in a statement but has not released any further details, citing ongoing discussions with the student's family.

However, in a letter to its members, CUPE 3902, the union representing academic workers at the university, was more explicit, saying it was "shocked and saddened to learn of yet another suicide at Bahen Centre," while the students' union also described the death as a suicide and urged anyone struggling with mental health to reach out and seek help.

The university closed the Bahen Centre for part of the weekend in the wake of Friday's incident and is now putting in safety barriers that will be the precursor to a more permanent fix. 

"We all wish that we had done that sooner," Meric Gertler said on Monday in an interview with CBC News. "That's why we closed the building immediately."

On Sunday, the school said "installation of long-term changes" are expected later this fall.

There have been at least two other suicides in the building in the past. 

According to Gertler, three student suicides have happened at the University of Toronto since June 2018.

School has expanded services, increased police presence

He said the university has taken steps to address mental health issues of students by expanding its counselling services, increasing police presence in the Bahen Centre and setting up a task force on student mental health.

The Bahen Centre for Information Technology was closed for part of the weekend, after a student died inside on Friday.  (Google Maps)

The university has spent $3 million over two years on changes, he added.

Gertler said setting up permanent barriers in the Bahen Centre is a complex process.

"It's a large, complicated building," he said, noting considerations air circulation and the need for a specialized design.

"We had to get permissions and permits ... and we have to then have the suppliers manufacture the materials," he added. 

"These are all custom produced to fit that particular space. It turns out to be a much more involved and time consuming process than we had anticipated."

Gertler did not confirm that the student died by suicide on Friday and said the university respects the wishes of the family who has lost a loved one when such a death occurs. He added the school acknowledges that a suicide has occurred when the family of the victim wishes the school to share the news.

"Of course, we do acknowledge the importance of talking about the issue of suicide amongst young people and young adults in this country. And that's something that we have started to talk about quite openly on this campus," he said.

'The entire university views this as a huge blow. Our sympathies go out to the family. We can only imagine what they must be experiencing at this time. We express our sincere condolences and deep sympathies,' President Meric Gertler told CBC News. (CBC)

He expressed condolences to the family of the student who died.

"Well, the entire university views this as a huge blow. Our sympathies go out to the family. We can only imagine what they must be experiencing at this time. We express our sincere condolences and deep sympathies," he said.

Students can get help right away if in distress

Gertler said the university has "done a lot" to improve the availability of its mental health services in the past several months. For example, he said, it rolled out same-day counselling services at its Health and Wellness Centre on the St. George campus this fall for students in extreme distress. The centre is also "triaging our cases more effectively" to provide services faster.

The university also has increased the number of counsellors it has on staff and contracted out to specialized companies to add personnel quickly, Gertler said.

If a student walks into the centre, he or she could receive help right away, he said.

"If our professionals determine that they are in extreme need, they can be seen immediately. That same-day availability is really critical," Gertler said.

"We are also doing our level best, at every opportunity, to get the news out about other forms of support that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so when students need help they know where to turn."

Dozens of students demonstrated at the University of Toronto in the spring, calling on the school to acknowledge what they say is a mental health crisis on campus. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

According to Sandy Welsh, U of T's vice-provost for students, the university spent $1.3 million on wellness counsellors for all three campuses in the 2017-2018 school year and $1.5 million on accessibility advisers in faculties and programs in the 2018-2019 school year due to an increase in demand from students for mental health services.

This past spring during exams, it offered drop-in counselling services at its St. George campus. 

As well, Welsh said the university has set up a task force on student mental health that has held several meetings, met with hundreds of people on its three campuses, and is expected to make recommendations later this year.

Problem is a challenging one, president says

Gertler said the problem is a challenging one and the school may turn to the province for financial help.

"We are a university, we're not a health care institution, and yet the kinds of demands that have been coming our way, as a result of this growing need from our student body, have been exponentially increasing. Our budgets have not."

Gertler said the university is aware that students are angry in the wake of the latest death.

"Our first concern is for the well-being of our students," he said. "Obviously, we need to do everything that we can to ensure their success, to ensure their physical and emotional well-being as well. And we want to make sure that they know where to turn when indeed they have the need for more support."

With files from The National