Toronto

Student pressure 'really is there': Task force calls on U of T to simplify mental health services

A task force is recommending that the school simplify the way it delivers mental health services to students in the wake of several suicides by students in recent months.

School faced criticism last year for its handling of student suicides

Students at the University of Toronto held protests last year demanding change in how the school delivers mental health services. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A task force set up by the University of Toronto is recommending that the school simplify the way it delivers mental health services to students.

Its final report, released publicly on Wednesday, comes after the deaths of four students by suicide on campus in recent years. 

The Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health was led by Trevor Young. 

The report says that there is a need for a clear "road map" that students can use to know which services are available and how to access them. It notes that many supports are available at the school's three campuses, but students often "struggle" to make use of them. 

"Students experiencing mental health challenges or crises may find it especially difficult to find the services they need," the report says.

The call for a simplified system, such as a central phone number or single web presence, is among 21 recommendations from the task force, which began its work in April 2019.

"There is a need for one access point where anyone can easily query what to do if a student is seeking support or is in distress, regardless of campus, division, or college."

Young said in a news release that students made it clear that it is is difficult to make sense of the variety of mental health services at the school.

"It was really complicated," Young said.

Watch The National's documentary on student mental health:

After four recent suicides on the University of Toronto campus, student activists are protesting to draw attention to what they call a mental health crisis. The National’s Ioanna Roumeliotis spoke to students who struggled accessing mental health services on campus about the changes they want to see. 10:46

Second-year student Brian Hao agrees students aren't always aware of the services that exist to help them. And the services themselves aren't necessarily adequate, he says.

Pressure 'really is there'

For example, when Hao was experiencing a crisis last year, he says a friend tried to call a U of T help line, only to be put on hold and then disconnected. He says he'd like to see a more proactive approach by the school and welcomes the recommendations, even if they are a first step. 

One of Hao's other friends was the first of four students at the school who died by suicide over the last year.

"It never really seemed like he was going through anything," Hao recalled.

Second year political science student Brian Hao knows all too well the toll wrought by mental health issues if left unchecked. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

But in March of 2018, he learned someone at residence had died. And it wasn't until a student protest the following day that he learned it was his friend.

At the time, he says, the school didn't acknowledge there had been a suicide on campus, saying only that there had been a death at its computer science building. 

"University of Toronto, you know, it's known as the best school in Canada. Naturally, there's going to be pressure no matter what school you go to... but I think the pressure is a lot different than what people realize. It really is there."

Task force looked at impact of 'culture of excellence'

The task force also looked at the school's "culture of excellence" and institutional policies that may affect student well-being. It heard that the culture puts pressure on students may also contribute to the feeling of "imposter syndrome," the report says.

U of T President Meric Gertler said he accepts all of the task force's recommendations 'wholeheartedly.' (CBC)

"The university should expand this notion of excellence to include wellness, in addition to excellence in research and academics, and truly become a 'culture of caring,'" the report recommends.

The task force, made up of 13 people, including faculty members, staff and students, was asked to look at four key areas:

  • Mental health services and delivery.
  • Co-ordination of services across the three campuses.
  • Expanding community partnerships.
  • Spaces offering mental health services at the university.

It visited all three campuses as it conducted several rounds of consultations.

As part of its call for a simplified system, the report urges the university to consider increasing after-hours care, such on evenings and weekends, and to continue making services available at times of high stress, such as during exams.

And it urges the university to expand its partnerships with hospitals, including Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, to respond better to the increasing demand for mental health resources. 

'Transparent protocol' on deaths

When it comes to a student death, the task force says the university should adopt a "transparent protocol" in communications. Such a protocol would outline reasons for limiting information, including privacy legislation and requests by families for privacy.

"The university should publish a public protocol related to tragic events," the report reads.

"Such a protocol would also outline resources and supports, training, follow-up activities, and aspects of trauma-informed care that are available."

In a joint statement to students, faculty and staff, U of T president Meric Gertler and vice-president and provost Cheryl Regehr said they accept all of the task force's recommendations "wholeheartedly."

Speaking to CBC News, Regehr said some of the school's new measures are already in place, such as drop-in counselling during exam periods and a new around-the-clock phone line that provides service in over 140 languages.

"I think the most important thing to get out to students is, 'We're listening to you,'" she said.

"Students are central to who we are as a university ... We are privileged to have students who have offered their advice, their thoughts, their opinions and we've listened and we're acting on it."

Where to get help

Canada Suicide Prevention Service

Toll-free 1-833-456-4566

Text: 45645

Chat: crisisservicescanada.ca 

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553) 

Kids Help Phone: 

Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Text: TALK to 686868 (English) or TEXTO to 686868 (French)

Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca 

Post-Secondary Student Helpline:

Phone: 1-866-925-5454 

Good2talk.ca 

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Here are some warning signs:

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.

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