For many young adults, university is the first time they are forced to contend with their mental health. Being away from friends and family, losing the security of a structured high school program, dealing with an enormous amount of work and expectation, and facing down an uncertain future are all huge triggers for new or pre-existing mental health struggles. This is especially the case at a large institution like U of T, where the staggering class sizes leave many students feeling like “just a number”, amplifying the feelings of insecurity and isolation that go hand in hand with anxiety and depression. The data backs this up: according to the 2016 National College Health Assessment survey, one fifth of Canadian post-secondary students experience problems with mental health, and given the silence that shrouds mental health struggles, it’s likely that number is an underestimate. To combat this, there has been a concerted effort by universities and students themselves to create mental health programs that bolster student wellbeing at all stages. In recent years, U of T has expanded its Health and Wellness Services, supported student-run programs like Grad Minds, and even developed a Mental Health Framework to make specific changes to campus culture that foster better mental health. And so it is absolutely baffling that U of T has just approved a policy that allows university staff to place students with mental health concerns on mandatory leave.
The policy, which was approved by the university’s governing council on Wednesday, June 27th, 2018, has been in the works for several years based on 2014-2015 recommendations made by the U of T ombudsperson. According to U of T Vice Provost Sandy Welsh, the purpose of the policy is to give students suffering from a “mental health crisis” a way to put their studies on pause without compromising their academic record. On the surface, this seems like a drastic improvement over the existing policy, in which students removed from campus due to severe safety or health concerns are subject to penalties under the Student Code of Conduct. However, the criteria for implementing a mandatory leave of absence under the new policy remain alarmingly vague and subjective. As explained by Welsh, the decision to place a student on a mandatory leave requires that evidence of a “mental health crisis” threatening their academic standing or safety be presented by the relevant Dean or department head to the Provost’s Office, who may or may not consult a health care professional on the appropriate course of action. The conditions of the leave – such as its length, whether students can still use university facilities, whether they get credit for partial courses or are reimbursed tuition, and what kind of documentation they require to prove their “fitness” to return to class – will then be determined at the discretion of the University on a case-by-case basis.
For the past year, the new policy has faced vocal opposition from students, human rights groups and mental health advocates, who argue that aside from reinforcing the stigma around mental health, it effectively allows the university to suspend students according to discriminatory criteria and makes it more difficult for them to address mental health needs. While a leave of absence may seem like a “break”, forced isolation from peers and daily routines can be devastating for individuals suffering from depression or anxiety, not to mention the additional concerns about falling behind on work or losing scholarships. These concerns are amplified for international students, who may depend on having a full-time status to remain in the country. Furthermore, students put on leave may not be eligible for Health Services or insurance, often their only venue to access necessary medications or therapy. With all these negative consequences to consider, students fearing a forced leave are more likely to keep silent about their mental health concerns instead of seeking treatment or support, which is not only detrimental to their mental health but can also pose a threat to their physical wellbeing. Over the coming months, IMMpress will continue to monitor the public response to this policy and its implementation. In the meantime, if you would like to learn more, check out this article online for a list of additional resources.
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