Toronto

U of T students demand change in wake of suicide on campus

Twenty-four students at the University of Toronto are calling on the school to improve its mental health services immediately after a death by suicide in a computer science building on Friday.

24 students formed new 'UofThrive' advocacy group in 24 hours

University of Toronto students Ashwini Selvakumaran, left, and Loizza Aquino, right, have formed UofThrive, a new advocacy group calling on the university to improve mental health services immediately. (CBC)

Twenty-four students at the University of Toronto are calling on the school to improve its mental health services  immediately after a student died by suicide in a computer science building on Friday.

Loizza Aquino, a third year student, and Ashwini Selvakumaran, a second year student, say they have formed a new advocacy group, UofThrive, to give students a voice. The group is already organizing its first event for Thursday, Oct. 10 to coincide with World Mental Health Day. 

Aquino, who is taking mental health and international development studies, said the group wants to create awareness surrounding mental health at U of T in the wake of the suicide. She noted the group was formed by 24 students in 24 hours. Group members come from all three U of T campuses in downtown Toronto, Scarborough and Mississauga. 

According to Aquino, UofThrive is already taking applications for speakers and performers of its first event.

"I think our main goal right now is to start a conversation on campus, across all three of them, and also to eliminate and eradicate the ... kind of culture that we have around being a student at the University of Toronto," Aquino said on Monday.

"You are not supposed to eat, you are not supposed to sleep, you are not supposed to take care of yourself, and that's what we equate with success."

The demand for change comes after the university announced on Sunday that it has installed temporary safety barriers at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, where the death occurred.

Toronto police have confirmed that they were called to the school at 6:30 p.m. on Friday for a medical call related to a death that was not criminal in nature. Toronto paramedics have confirmed that a death occurred on campus.

In a tweet on Saturday, the school confirmed that a student died on campus. The student's name, sex and age, year and faculty have not been released. 

Wait times for counselling too long, students say

Aquino and Selvakumaran say wait times at the U of T Health and Wellness Centre, St. George, which provides counselling for students, are too long, especially for students in crisis. CBC Toronto has asked the centre to respond to their concerns, but it has not yet received a response.

In a tweet on Saturday, the University of Toronto confirmed that a student died on campus. The student's name, sex and age, year and faculty have not been released. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In an Instagram post on the weekend, Aquino says there is a need for more talk about mental health, better resources and services. She pointed out that the school has lost a student to suicide less than a month after school year started.

In an interview with CBC Toronto on Monday, she said the lack of conversation about mental health means students who are suffering do not necessarily know where to get help or how to talk about such problems as depression, anxiety and feeling overwhelmed.

International students may face a language or cultural barrier, she added. "They're in a new country. They might not know where exactly to reach out for help," she said.

Selvakumaran, who is taking peace, conflict and justice studies, said many students have already expressed support for the group.

"We all really had a like-minded goal to establish a platform where our students at our university feel reassured and supported ... So many students have come up to us to tell us how grateful they are for this initiative and it's only been a little over 24 hours," she said on Monday.

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

Selvakumaran said typically, U of T students feel pressured to be successful academically and in terms of extracurricular activities. She said students have limited time for themselves but mental health is crucial for well-being.

She said she herself had to wait for months for counselling at the U of T Health and Wellness Centre. In her first year, she felt overwhelmed by academic pressure and a lack of social support. She sent a request to the centre in March for an appointment but did not receive a response until the summer. 

"Personally, I found it very difficult to access any of the resources I could at the University of Toronto and I had to turn to other support systems like my family and friends," she said.

"While I'm lucky to have a strong support system, many students at this university don't have that, specifically international students who are so far away from home."

The group, UofThrive, hopes to change that by creating a new "support community," she added.

'This needs to be addressed'

Samer Henry, a PhD engineering student and teaching assistant, said he was in a meeting for teaching assistants in the computer science building on Friday. He said he and other students were escorted out by Toronto police and paramedics.

Samer Henry, a PhD engineering student and teaching assistant, has a message for students: 'Go to the resources. Go to the health and wellness centre. Reach out in any way or form. You should not be alone. If you feel that you would like to talk to someone, there are people who would be willing to hear you out.' (CBC)

"It was the first time for pretty much all of us to be this close and feeling that this is so real and this is a big problem. This needs to be addressed," he said.

Henry said he offered crisis support for the other teaching assistants there but he sought help on Saturday at the health and wellness centre.

Henry said he was shocked but has a message for students in crisis: "Go to the resources. Go to the health and wellness centre. Reach out in any way or form. You should not be alone. If you feel that you would like to talk to someone, there are people who would be willing to hear you out."

With files from Shanifa Nasser