On November 2, 2020, Keshavv Maya, a first-year U of T (University of Toronto) student studying mathematics and quantum computing, died by suicide at an an-off campus location. Maya’s death sparked outrage and distress across the U of T student community, but most students attending the university know this is not an isolated incident and students asking U of T to do better is nothing new – over ten students have died by suicide while attending U of T since 2017.
The pandemic played a vital part in youth mental health and there continues to be a wide mental health crisis among Canadian universities and youth. U of T isn’t the only university facing pressure from students on providing better mental health care. Recently the University of Alberta received backlash for long wait times when it comes to on-campus support and inadequate mental health services– an example being how the mental health support links on their page were broken.
U of T has been met with similar claims, specifically speaking about the months-long wait-time to get a spot in speaking with a counselor. U of T alumna, Jan Lim, noticed the poor mental health culture during her time at U of T and chose to take action.
Many have struggled with mental health
“There was a lot of student advocacy surrounding the increased number of student suicides that were occurring on campus,” said Lim via Zoom. “That is what propelled my decision to start collecting stories and collecting them from the U of T student population.”
Lim began her journey as a student activist in 2017 after meeting other mental health activists at the school. After Maya’s death, she posted her thoughts on Instagram in a video that discussed student suicide and the impact of being a ‘high-performing’ student has on one’s mental health. The video also addressed how suicide relates to neoliberal capitalism and currently has over 4,000 views.
Lim collected about 75 stories about student experiences with the mental health services at U of T. The stories cover a time period starting from November 2020 up until the first half of 2021.
“I’ve been working on sort of putting those stories together and analyzing them ever since,” says Lim. She plans to release the report sometime in June through her website.
Lim’s hope for this report is to reveal the structural issues she believes perpetuate the poor mental health culture at U of T and to allow folks to deconstruct the structural issues that continue to fester at university.
“There are structural issues with– for example, loads are structured, and how powers between students and TAs and professors are structured in a way that’s unique to U of T and again, really detrimental to students,” says Lim.
In her report, Lim found that many international students struggled with enrolling in courses and managing finances while also maintaining a high GPA.
“Yes, you could say that every single university across Canada has issues with how it handles undergraduate student services,” says Lim. of T that a lot of students have been bringing up over the years. ”
“I feel as if students are getting tired. I didn’t expect such a large response, ”says Lim,“ The very first post I made about this got shared over 2000 times. ”
“I wish I never accepted to go to U of T”
Narges Hassan, a fifth-year U of T Scarborough student pursuing a major in health sciences and a double minor in sociology and psychology, is passionate about her institution and regularly takes advantage of the mental health services they have to offer. However, he says they fall short in adequately supporting students, especially those in the margins.
“I wish I never accepted to go to U of T because there’s a lot of barriers, especially for students like me that have an ongoing disability,” says Hassan.
Hassan has anxiety and ADHD, which puts her in a position to take more time to complete tasks, in her experience the school has not been very accommodating to this fact. Hassan is familiar with the Health and Wellness Center at U of T, where multiple types of therapy are accessible such as cognitive behavior therapy. Despite this, her experience has proven that these resources are not very accessible to all students.
As Lim mentioned, Hassan agrees that the rigorous steps to enroll in programs and courses, specifically for international students, deter folks from coming to the Health and Wellness Center at U of T. As a Muslim female, Hassan has noticed the Health and Wellness Center is dominated by white professionals, which makes it difficult to seek help from someone who will understand her religion and culture.
“I do have issues going there because they (counselors) don’t understand what I’m going through coming from a religious background,” says Hassan, “The first two years were very difficult. Health and Wellness Center) at all. ”
Although minimal changes have been made, Hassan still finds it difficult to go through the extensive process of receiving accommodations within courses and getting help within the school. The process includes visiting her family doctor every semester to have her information updated– Hassan says many students stop doing this early on, finding the process tedious and difficult.
“When you have a prevalent mental disability, it doesn’t change every semester. Again, it’s just one hour but honestly repeating trauma over and over again is not helping students, ”says Hassan.
Long wait times to see counselors
Bonnie Hu, a 2022 U of T graduate majoring in linguistics, is too familiar with the specific issues to U of T. Growing up in BC, Hu moved to Toronto to attend university.
Hu’s struggle with her mental health ultimately led her to drop out in 2013. She spoke about how the long wait times to see a counselor made it difficult to receive help. While speaking with her U of T psychiatrist, Hu also spoke about her sexual assault which occurred when she was 16– she found the psychiatrist provided no support.
I did mention that to the psychiatrist I first saw when I came here (U of T), but that issue was not addressed at all. I was ashamed to bring it up with the counselor I was seeing. And then had some unhealthy attitudes about seeking mental health help from my experience, ”she said.
When Hu was seeking help at U of T, she met a doctor and a counselor. While the doctor is supposed to provide physical help, her experience showcased the major disconnect between the doctor and the counselor, she found the doctor was unfriendly.
Hu isn’t alone through her experience with the doctors at U of T. Lim found in her report that many students experience coldness and gaslighting from the nurses and physicians. She also found that many students were not able to access psychological or psychiatric support for months on end despite being suicidal.
At times, scheduling appointments depended on whether the student was planning on hurting themselves before the next appointment, Lim mentioned. Lim credited these experiences to psychological violence happening within the school.
Although Hu says it took years to shake off her bad attitudes towards seeking mental health help after her experience at U of T, she appreciates the good memories she has at university. After the pandemic, Hu says she saw improvements being made in terms of having younger and more relatable counselors and hopes more can be done. Hu, who is visually impaired and has autism, hopes that more can be done to support students with disabilities.
Student mental health task force launched
Lim acknowledges the positive changes being made at U of T, she emphasizes that more needs to be done. Since the pandemic, U of T created a task force for student mental health support and launched a new website.
“Neither of these two tools have really tangibly changed. The quantity of help that’s accessed to students is nor the quality of help that’s accessible to students, they (U of T) appear to be more focused on helping students navigate existing resources, ”says Lim.
Lim says that U of T professors have full power over the student’s academic success in a course, they can choose to refuse a deferral no matter the reasoning which often forces the student to confront their professor.
“This is something that has repeatedly happened at U of T, where people have been denied accommodations,” says Lim, “A lot of students feel very dehumanized through that process… Often that becomes very traumatic for a lot of students.”
Lim mentioned that U of T students are being thrown into an academic environment that is as competitive as other schools, but they aren’t receiving the same support. U of T has the highest student-to-staff ratio, approximately 20 to one according to times higher education website.
With Lim’s report, coming out in June, she hopes to share the systemic psychological violence experienced by students at U of T which she hopes will spark change.
Although Lim did not have the resources or capacity to create a large-scale report, she believes the university would benefit from doing so.
“I think the university could really benefit from a campus-wide survey of the difficulties and the delays that people face as a result of the Health and Wellness services,” says Lim.
Furthermore, Lim mentions that diversity in mental health support and accommodations is something that the school lacks.
U of T is a university that perpetuates a rigorous and tough environment, which inevitably feeds into the toxic mental health culture. With a lack of mental health resources, this environment can become deadly. Many student groups including U of T Mental Health Policy Council and U of Thrive have worked hard to create a safe space within U of T. Although all the students in this article touched on the good memories they experienced at U of T, they hope for change– so that what they experienced does not happen to someone else.
“The last thing I want to say to any U of T students or alumni reading this, you’re not alone… As an alumni student, hopefully, I can keep doing whatever I can over the years to speak to my own experiences at this school, as much as I can speak to the positives, ”says Lim,“ Hopefully U of T finds the morals and the ethics to improve things for their undergraduate students. ”
When asked for comment U of T’s Vice Provost Sandy Welsh, responded with the following statement:
“The mental and physical well-being of our students is a top priority for the University of Toronto. Following recommendations made by our Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, the University has redesigned its physical and virtual health and wellness spaces and services. As a result, we have removed wait times for mental health appointments and made it easier for students to receive help when and where they need it. These are just some of the many steps the University of Toronto has taken or is currently in the process of implementing to improve mental health services across all three campuses. To learn more about our many supports, please visit our Student Mental Health Dashboard.”