Toronto

How a student seeking mental-health treatment got handcuffed by U of T police

As University of Toronto students demand improved mental health services, a student says she was handcuffed by campus police while seeking help for suicidal thoughts at the Health and Counselling Centre, an incident that happened three days after a suicide at the downtown campus.

1 month after suicide on campus, students say mental-health services not improving

A third-year student says she was handcuffed on Oct. 2 by campus police while seeking mental health services at the Health and Counselling Centre at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus. (Anita Mozaffari)

A third-year student at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus says she was handcuffed by campus police while at the Health and Counselling Centre seeking help for suicidal thoughts.

The incident happened five days after a student died by suicide at the downtown campus on Sept. 27, and amid students voicing concerns about mental health services on campus.

The student says it left her feeling traumatized and feeling like a criminal.

"I felt like this was basically all my fault for coming to get help. I feel like that should be a thing that people should never feel when they ask for help," she said in an interview.

Due to the sensitive nature of the incident, CBC News is protecting the woman's identity. 

The woman's friend, Anita Mozaffari, says she went with her to see a campus psychiatrist, but they were told getting an appointment could take months.

"That's not something that you say to someone who's already feeling suicidal and very hopeless," Mozaffari said. "So [my friend] began to cry and felt very distressed."

They were informed the first step is seeing a nurse specializing in mental health issues, who wasn't at the campus clinic, so they met with another nurse, according to Mozaffari. 

The student says she and the nurse came up with a "safety plan," which included staying at Mozaffari's home that evening. The nurse told her that before they could leave, it was protocol for them to speak briefly with campus police. 

'I started to panic'

The student says that as soon as the two officers heard her mention a physical location where she was thinking of dying by suicide, they told her they had to arrest her. She told them it was unnecessary, and she would go with them to Credit Valley Hospital. 

"[They] told me to stand up and turn around. In that moment, I started to panic," she said. "I had no mental health professional with me to tell me what's happening.… I had to ask them why this was happening, and they let me know that it was protocol."

Mozaffari says her friend was calm until that point, but once she was arrested, she started hyperventilating. The officers put Mozaffari's jacket over the handcuffs and escorted her through a busy building on campus as she cried, according to Mozaffari. The student says she was humiliated and felt as though others were wondering what she did wrong.

I felt like this was basically all my fault for coming to get help.- Student who was handcuffed

She and Mozaffari waited for a police car so the officers could take her to the hospital. Mozaffari wasn't allowed in the back of the car, which made the student panic and feel uncomfortable, she says. She vomited in the back seat.

Anita Mozaffari with her friend, who isn't being identified by CBC News due to the sensitive nature of the incident. (Submitted)

The student says the officers wouldn't take off the handcuffs until a nurse at the hospital deemed it OK. She spent the night there and was prescribed medication.

Safety of students is top priority: U of T 

When asked about the incident, the University of Toronto said in a statement it can't comment on specific cases, but students' safety and well-being are the primary consideration.

A spokesperson didn't confirm whether the use of handcuffs is part of the university's protocol in certain mental health incidents.

"Situations are sometimes fluid and evolve quickly. The steps taken depend on the officers' assessment of the situation," the statement reads.

"Campus medical professionals are trained to work with individuals who are experiencing a physical or mental health crisis. Hospitalizations are relatively rare, and most are voluntary."

The statement goes on to say campus police become involved when someone makes specific statements that indicate they have an intention to harm themselves and are unwilling to go to a hospital. 

"In such cases, we have a responsibility to keep individuals safe." 

According to one section of the Ontario Mental Health Act, police can transport people to mental health facilities if a doctor signs off on the move. There's also no language in the act about restraints.

Family physician Andrea Chittle, who is the author of a recent article on the subject in Canadian Family Physician, says there are instances where a person in crisis might require restraints. 

But "these issues are complex," Chittle told CBC News.

"There are alternatives that can be considered to the use of police, and to the use of restraints, to transfer people requiring emergency mental health assessment from community settings to hospital," she continued.

Chittle says those alternatives include mobile crisis teams (police-mental health worker partnerships), or transporting the patient in an ambulance with paramedics accompanied by a mental health nurse or social worker, "or with a reliable support person."

"There is this issue of perceived risk and danger, and a notion that in order to keep somebody safe, they need to be handcuffed," she said. "But that needs to be balanced against stigma and potentially deterring somebody from seeking care in the future, and making somebody feel like they have done something criminal, when what they're really doing is expressing a need for help."

The university says it's reviewing its police practices "in this respect" and its existing practices are consistent with those of local municipal police services.

We have a responsibility to keep individuals safe.- University of Toronto 

Beverly Bain, a gender studies professor, teaches Mozaffari at the Mississauga campus and has shared the incident with administrators. She says she's heard of a handful of similar incidents.

Bain says she'd like to see policy change so law enforcement isn't involved in mental health situations on campus, leaving it up to mental health professionals. 

"[This is] criminalizing our students for trying to get help or for having mental health issues. The administration needs to intervene in terms of the practice of campus police."

Improving mental health services 

Second-year U of T student Ashwini Selvakumaran, who has been calling on the university to improve mental health services since September, says she hasn't seen any substantial change at the school, but notes student groups are taking action.

The incident happened five days after a student died by suicide on the University of Toronto's downtown campus. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

She'd like to see shorter wait times to see professionals, more communication with students when an incident happens, and a larger conversation about mental health and the services available. 

"A lot of students don't really know that there is a crisis going on and therefore they don't know how they can get involved." 

After the student suicide at the end of September, Selvakumaran co-founded UofThrive, an advocacy group aimed at giving students a voice about mental health.  

The group held its first event last month. Mozaffari and her friend attended and shared their experience. Selvakumaran says she was shocked and angry, but it was inspiring.

"We really want to do something to make sure no student ever goes through that or feels that way again." 

The university says it's reviewing the services and supports offered to students and looking at how to improve them. It also points to the mental health task force that is gathering input across all three campuses.

U of T recently released its Draft Summary of Themes, which outlines what the task force heard from students, staff and faculty while doing engagement over the last few months

The draft lists seven areas to improve on, including communication, services and culture. Pop-up feedback sessions about the themes are being held across the three campuses this week. The task force is set to provide recommendations to the university's administration in December.   

The student who was handcuffed says she wants others who are dealing with mental health issues to know things can get better.

"No matter what your life looks like right now, you can restart it again," she says. "There are mental health professionals out there who will not put you in handcuffs and who are there because they want your life to be better."


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.