Breaking Down the New Mental Health Policy at UofT
Photo Credits: CityNews
Part I: Diagnosing the Present
On June 27th, 2018, the Governing Council of the University of Toronto voted to approve the controversial mandated leave of absence policy (MLAP), which allows administrators to put students with mental health issues on an involuntary leave. From inside the halls of Simcoe Hall, where the vote was taking place, the raised voices of student protesters could be heard—but to no avail. The policy is now in full effect, and the landscape of mental health at U of T is as uncertain as ever.
Amelia Eaton, Mental Health Director for Woodsworth College Students Association (WCSA), embarked on a project to engage elected student representatives, student activists, and the U of T administration to determine the current state of mental health activism at U of T and the future of the university’s mental health policy.
Climate of uncertainty
“I’ve noticed an increase in fear amongst students.”
This is how Kristen Zimmer, a University College (UC) student and mental health activist, describes the climate on campus after the Governing Council voted to approve the Mandated Leave of Absence Policy (MLAP) this June.
The policy, now in effect, allows the U of T administration to place students with mental health issues on an involuntary leave if they are determined to be a danger to themselves or others, or if their mental health is severely impacting their studies. According to Zimmer, students have come to her with concerns when accessing mental health supports on campus for fear of being deemed “too severe” and garnering attention from administrators. “Right now there’s this growing fear of ‘what if this policy could apply to me?’” says Zimmer.
“It's important that students continue to seek out the mental health supports that they need,” says Vice-Provost, Students and Sociology Professor Sandy Welsh in response to these concerns. According to Professor Welsh, the MLAP is not a policy that would be “about any student with a mental health issue”; rather, she says the policy is “really focused on these rare circumstances where there’s a significant mental health issue and a behavioral concern.” This behavioral concern would arise “where there's a safety concern, threats of violence—it could be one where a student stops attending class, [or] hears voices in their head.”
Professor Welsh reiterates that this policy is “really about an exceptional circumstance” and highlights the importance of “getting the information out” to dispel rumours about the policy. Welsh has told The Newspaper that she is continuing to meet with “student leaders around campus” and that her office is working on a companion guide to the policy that students will have access to “at some point in the next few months.” In the meantime, students are left to decipher the policy on their own.
Comments from administrators raise concerns
One of the challenges moving forward from the June 27th decision has been the lack of trust between students and administrators, notes Aidan Swirsky, a former University College representative for the University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU).
Swirsky describes hearing “bizarre” examples of how the MLAP would be applied during his time at the UTSU. One such example given by a student leader was “if a student came to class on a hot day wearing a parka”.
“I didn’t know where that comment came from,” says Swirsky, until he was invited by Professor Sandy Welsh to a meeting with other students in December 2017 to discuss the policy, where Welsh “raised that same example”. Swirsky says that this was not an offhand comment and that Welsh used this example again when she spoke to the University College council in January 2018. The students in the meeting “all had the same really perplexed look” in response this remark, says Swirsky.
Zhenglin Liu, an engineering student at the St. George campus, says that “just as concerning as the impacts of the policy itself was the outdated view of mentally ill students” suggested in statements made by administrators, including Provost Cheryl Regehr and Professor Sandy Welsh, during discussions of the policy. “They mentioned students covering up their residence room windows with tinfoil and wearing heavy jackets in the summer as examples of situations where the policy might be applied,” says Liu, “when neither of those things harmed the university or other students in any way beyond being reminiscent of fearmongering stereotypes of the mentally ill”.
When asked to comment on her remark in an interview with The Newspaper, Professor Welsh stated that she had “been asked in the consultations with students to provide examples of the kinds of behaviour that might be there” and that her statement “was given as an example” based on behaviours that “over the years some of the staff that provide support in certain kinds of situations have witnessed”. Welsh says that “a student that is having a significant mental health issue or a psychotic issue” may come to class “wearing clothes that are for a different season, and they may also be engaging in other behaviours such as handing in papers that don't make sense, that our faculty members don’t understand”. She added that “Provost [Cheryl Regehr] also provided some examples” of such cases when the MLAP could be put into effect.
“Professor Welsh’s ‘parka’ comment is a textbook stereotype,” says Kristen Zimmer, adding that comments like this from administrators indicate that “the people behind the [mandated leave of absence] policy lack basic understanding of mental illness.” She points out that earlier in the year the Ontario Human Rights Commission's Chief Commissioner “cautioned the Governing Council against risk assessment ‘based on subjective views (that may be informed by stereotype).’” Zimmer says the remark “reveals how the policy creators perceive mad/mentally ill students: people with bizarre behaviours who must be observed.”
Symptom of a larger issue
To Zimmer and other students interviewed, these comments are not merely impolitic quips from individual administrators—they are symptoms of the university’s larger systemic bias against mentally ill students. The mandated leave of absence policy is “part of [this] larger structural issue” at U of T says Zimmer, who argues that “a shift” is needed “in academia as a whole when it comes to being human”.
The students affected by mental health policies are often left out of consultations, and the students elected to represent them are not always engaged in “critical thinking” says Aidan Swirsky. According to Swirsky, the result is that administrators, even with good intentions, can push through damaging policies because they lack understanding of the “lived experiences” of students.
“Why would you not be in touch with people who would engage with [mental health] resources?” asks Kristen Zimmer. “It seems so simple and yet you don’t see that happening.”
The systemic barriers that prevent students with mental illness from having a seat at the table when it comes to these policies are compounded by a broken consultation process and bad-faith negotiations on the part of the administration, argue student mental health activists.
“The administration burned a few bridges with regards to how they conducted this policy,” says Aidan Swirsky. Zhenglin Liu recalls that “At the University Affairs Board vote in May, Provost Regehr threatened that she would remove the policy from the board’s consideration if it voted to consider the policy for a longer period of time” which Liu says was “unproductive and frankly undemocratic”.
The protest that took place in June outside the Governing Council’s vote on the MLAP was “the culmination of a lot of frustration” says Swirsky. Although this demonstration may have faded from campus consciousness, Zimmer highlights the need for protest in the face of what she sees as discriminatory policies; “we’re going to be loud and we’re going to be angry about it because we haven’t been heard in the first place.”
“The rage is still here,” echoes Aidan Swirsky, who adds that “the [mandated leave of absence] policy was a wake-up call for activism” on campus.
Whether this rage will be productive or corrosive will depend both on the strategies undertaken by students to improve mental health policies and the administration's willingness to consider student input.
Pick up the next issue of The Newspaper on September 26 to read part two of the series Breaking Down the New Mental Health Policy at U of T by WCSA Mental Health Director Amelia Eaton.
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