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The death of a first year New College student at the University of Toronto has prompted an outcry from the student body, who feel the educational institution is not doing enough to ensure students have proper access to mental health supports.
“It would be wrong to imply an attitude that they don’t care, but with a multi-billion dollar institution of the University of Toronto you would expect to see significantly better services and living environment,” explains Dermot O’Halloran, vice-president of operations with the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU.)
“It has been a longstanding issue.”
On Nov. 2,2020 first year student Keshav Mayya died by suicide at an off-campus location. A student studding mathematics and quantum computing, Mayya’s tragic death has put the spotlight back on the call for change in the provided mental health services.
“The fact that it is such a universal experience, it’s very concerning and it sort of raised students voices up again and I was happy to see that,” adds Muntaka Ahmed, UTSU president.
“Talking to somebody does go a long way, but it doesn’t solve those inherent problems that are being perpetuated by the academic and the social culture at U of T.”
A petition calling for mental health reform is gaining momentum, with more than 4,500 signatures since last month. The petition highlights questionable accessibility to support systems.
Ahmed says the student union knows of at least one international student who recently reached out to the designated help line for support, whose call was allegedly never followed up on.
“That is the most basic thing that you could give a student, so while I do think that there are services available, I don’t think that they’re clear and accessible to students, said Ahmed during a Zoom interview with Global News.
The UTSU has been trying to fill what they call “gaps” in policy and services available to students, they creating a bursary designed specifically to support mental health.
“We have a health and wellness bursary that is designed specifically to help subsidize costs of therapy for student whose sessions cost more than what is covered in our health and dental plan,” added O’Halloran.
Meanwhile, university students across the country are grappling with more pressure than ever, not just academically but socially as classes have moved online and some cities like Toronto are under lockdown.
To help students grappling with that stress, the university has extended its winter break.
“We recognize that the past several months have been a challenging time for many students and we hope that this extended break provides an opportunity for rest and recuperation,” writes Micah Stickel, U of T’s vice-provost, students.
“For those students on campus, we have a robust winter break residence program that will include daily community engagement programming, staffing to support students directly, and an optional meal plan,”
The university adds that it “dedicated significant funds” to mental health services on all three of its campuses.
“There are numerous central and divisional budgets for student wellness which include but are not limited to student mental health, Stickel adds.
“Many faculties, divisions and departments use funds for their own health and wellness programs and we have invested more annually to place wellness counsellors in specific faculties and at all three campuses.”
Stickel points to the Student Mental Health Resource website which was developed in consultation with students and allows them the opportunity to quickly and easily find the mental health services they need
“This is also part of our ongoing effort to normalize healthy discussions around mental health and wellness.”
Some of the supports provided to students range from one-on-one, in-person and virtual counselling, to skills-based workshops and psychiatric care.
“This is just part of your journey and part of your life and even though the intensity of this moment seems huge, not focusing on just those marks but focusing on how am I going to get through this and if we’re feeling isolated, reaching out,” offers Carmen Bellows, an Alberta-based psychologist.
“If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, that’s the time to reach out before we become stricken by it and before we become just stuck in it.”
Students are being reminded to connect with not just family but each other.
“I’m a big fan of the telephone, first of all because people pay attention when they pick up a telephone,” explains Steve Joordens, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus.
“They will do a big job of giving us that connection especially if we pick the right people and it will give those other people the right connection as well.”