Room to Improve: U of T Student Mental Health Services
U of T, the OHRC, and UC Berkeley
Aaron Panciera NEWS EDITOR
Bardia Besharat ASSOCIATE NEWS EDITOR
Photo: University of California (UC) Berkeley's Tang Centre (UC Berkeley).
The University of Toronto (U of T) has a horrendous reputation for its undergraduate mental health services. With the recent withdrawal from consideration of the proposed Mandatory Leave of Absence Policy due to backlash from students and the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), U of T’s approach to student mental health has come under an incredible amount of criticism.
However, these complaints are not unique to U of T, as they plague many of North America’s most “elite” colleges and universities. This raises the question: is U of T atypical in its lack of exceptional mental health treatment, or are comparable universities just as bad?
The U of T Approach
In 2014, U of T released its student mental health strategy and framework entitled “Report of the Provostial Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health.” This report essentially laid out the blueprint for how the university handles the mental health of its students, recommending “the adoption of a systems approach as the overarching institutional strategy.”
“A systems approach focuses not just on health and wellness services and programs, but regards the entire University environment as necessarily involved in creating the conditions that allow its students to flourish,” the report read.
A systems approach to mental health is common in treating young people. The approach takes all aspects of one’s life, from individual characteristics to societal and political issues, and creates possible outcomes based on these aspects. This includes outcomes such as one’s education, social inclusion or marginalization, risk of facing legal or criminal consequences, etc. The concept behind this is that, especially in the lives of young people, one factor in isolation will not be the sole contributor, or even primary contributor, to one’s depreciating mental health. In the university context, the systems approach is meant to highlight the reciprocal relationship between mental wellbeing and academic success.
However, this report only contains recommendations, with no substantive policy changes or recommendations. The proposed Mandatory Leave of Absence Policy, U of T’s most notable policy proposal on the issue this year, has been condemned by the OHRC because the policy “may result in discrimination on the basis of mental health disability contrary to the Human Rights Code.” Any policy found contrary to the Human Rights Code should not be considered an appropriate policy to enact on its students, especially those already struggling with poor mental health.
The UC Berkeley Approach
The University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) remains to be one of the world’s leading universities. It has Division I sports, world class education, and surprisingly one of the best mental health services offered to students. Although the University of Toronto parallels Berkeley’s academic prestige, it does not offer nearly the same resources for student mental health.
A major dividing factor between the two universities can simply be found in the websites for mental health services. U of T’s website is difficult to navigate, and it is often unclear as to what services the university offers to students with mental illness. On the other hand, UC Berkeley maintains an easy-to-navigate and clear website offering a wide range of mental health services, including an online hub for mental illness screenings as well as tips for a healthier lifestyle.
In addition to a better website and online resources, UC Berkeley’s Tang Center consistently ranks in the top five for best university health centers. Rated as the third best wellness center for universities by topcounselingschools.org, the Tang Center is a model wellness center that all universities should strive to achieve. This is due to the wide range of services offered, from a general urgent care clinic to counseling for drug and alcohol abuse. The Tang Center offers dedicated women’s and LGBT services as well, creating a more accepting environment for students. Not only does the Tang Center have excellent mental health services, as they have mental health programs for eating disorders, abuse, domestic violence, as well as many other issues, but they also provide a Career Counseling Library.
Another reason UC Berkeley has great mental health services is due to the administration of the university putting in a considerable amount of effort into these services. In fact, the Division of Student Affairs offers a page on its website in which the Dean of Students expresses his views on mental illness and shares his experiences with them as well, stating, “Whether you are faced with adjustment issues, depression, or anxiety, or are dealing with stress or time management problems that are affecting your academic performance, we want you to know that we are here to help — that you matter and that you are not alone.”
How U of T Can Improve
The first step to fixing the horrendous reputation that the university has toward providing mental health services is in listening to its students, as well as medical professionals. According to data published by the University of Toronto, as of June 30, 2016, U of T and Berkeley have almost identical endowments, with U of T at $2.13 billion and UC Berkeley at $2.06 billion. Furthermore, both schools have similar undergraduate student populations with Berkeley having around 30,000 students and the St. George campus having about 40,000 students. This eliminates the excuse of not having the resources to give the appropriate care necessary to students’ mental health.
While curing student mental health issues is a daunting task, giving the appearance of better resources is the first step toward a healthier U of T community. The university’s poor approach to mental health policy can be summed up in the proposed Mandatory Leave of Absence Policy. The concept of the policy is neither unique to U of T nor harmful. In many cases, taking a break from school is what is best for the student, similar to a mental health gap year. However, it is within the details of this policy that the university makes it clear that students suffering from mental health are a burden in its eyes. During the process, not only is a medical professional not required at any point, but there is little plan for the student’s life post-leave of absence. The university is not responsible for making alternative arrangements for the student in terms of treatment, living arrangements (if the student lived on U of T residence), and at no point is the university obliged to keep students safe when showing evidence of self harm. Even before a student begins to show behaviour that might legitimately call for this policy, the university has no obligation, and makes no effort to create obligation in the policy, to accommodate the student when they are showing signs of deteriorating mental health prior to behaviour that may harm themselves or others.
“The Policy appears to allow the University to immediately put the student on leave and withdraw essential services (housing, health, and counselling services) at a time when the student is in crisis and most in need of support,” read an OHRC letter to the Chair of the Governing Council Claire Kennedy. “This approach is not consistent with the Policy’s intent of preventing harm.”
This issue is less about the current mental health services provided, but instead the approach the university takes to students suffering from mental health disorders. The university offers many services dedicated to helping students suffering from poor mental health such as the Koffler Health and Wellness Centre, the Gerstein Crisis Centre, and the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s new initiative, Peers with Ears. However, with the proposal of the Mandatory Leave of Absence Policy, the administration has shown that it views students suffering from serious mental health problems as liabilities that need to be removed from the care of the university. The first step toward fixing its reputation, and the only way to begin meaningful mental health initiatives, is to see these students as they are: human beings that need help.