A recent report by CTV’s investigative journalism program W5 finds that ten per cent of university students consider taking their own lives . This is likely because many students succumb to the stresses of managing academic workloads, extra-curricular activities, relationships, paying off tuition debts, and trying to find employment.
Yet, there lacks explicit knowledge of University of Toronto’s (U of T) mental health services and policies concerning assignments, exams, and reading weeks. Without this knowledge, students can become overwhelmed by their university schedules and feel uncomfortable seeking help.
According to Laura Boyko, Director of Health and Wellness Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), being proactive is imperative to promoting mental health. Health and Wellness makes information on mental well-being services available to new students during orientation each year. Rather than wait for a crisis, students are strongly encouraged to contact Health & Wellness whenever they may want to see a counsellor.
“The big thing that’s come out recently is the mental health framework which can be found on the Vice-Provost website,” says Boyko. “The [strategy] is a comprehensive document that was released last fall.”
Boyko explains that U of T has developed this inclusive mental health strategy through the dialogue of many different groups of people. “Consultation with students, stakeholders, faculty, and staff has become the foundation of mental health and the well-being of students. There is a tremendous amount of services available to students at UTSC.”
One of the most popular services offered by UTSC’s Health and Wellness Centre is the weekly meditation group co-facilitated by counsellors Erin Bradford and Naomi Ball. Boyko describes the self-referral drop-in group as an informal community of students, who support each other and develop friendships. The Health and Wellness Centre also organizes many other mental health and mindfulness services, which have proven to be very useful for students.
The fall reading week is said to give students a much-needed break from stressful assignments, midterm exams, seasonal depression, and a variety of other concerns. Following UTM’s decision to create the reading week, campus spokesperson Janet Stirling reported the break was very important in helping students de-stress and ensuring that they have a mental health break.
Nevertheless, some students believe that the University of Toronto should be doing more to promote mental health. They acknowledge, for example, that U of T St. George (UTSG) has not implemented a fall Reading Week like U of T’s two satellite campuses, Scarborough and Mississauga (UTM). UTSG appears to have no plans of creating the reading week and instead gives students a mere two day break.
Some students, such as fifth year UTSG student Lizz Corazza, believe that UTSG does not have a fall reading week because it has higher academic expectations of its larger number of students as compared to UTSC and UTM. According to Corazza, UTSG places a very strong emphasis on academic achievement rather than on mental health programs.
Keith Tong, a recent U of T mechanical engineering graduate, describes the learning environment of UTSG as a pressure cooker. “It was like we were all just numbers. U of T is a big school, but I felt it could do more to reach out to students through counsellors.” Tong adds that many of his peers felt completely isolated as they weren’t comfortable contacting U of T’s counsellors.
Another reality at U of T that is said be detrimental to the mental health of students are high expectations and academic pressures. U of T still has specific criteria regarding deferring exams. A student must have three exams within 24 hours to have one of the exams rescheduled . In most other circumstances, U of T says it is unable to guarantee deferrals.
It is unclear what U of T could do to allay problems related to student stress, anxiety, and depression; the answer remains to be seen in years to come. Some professors and faculty members suggest that U of T should develop a course specifically intended to help students learn how to manage workloads, deadlines, and common mental health issues.
If U of T were to create the course, it would be offered to first year students and either count towards their electives or breadth requirements. Rather than be graded, the course could use a Pass/Fail system. All students who develop and demonstrate the ability to manage the university curriculum, and an understanding of the health and services available to them would receive the course credit.
The University of Toronto has created a comprehensive platform promoting mental health, but this may require a revision of its course and exam policies in order to facilitate the reduction of stress, anxiety, and other health concerns affecting its ever-increasing number of students.
This article originally ran in Issue I, Volume I: Post-Secondary Mental Health: http://mindsmattermagazine.com/issue-v1/
By: John Dias
Edited by: Veerpal Bambrah
Image by: Tomeo Ho
 “Campus Crisis: Why are suicide rates rising among university students?” CTV NEWS (2013 ) Retrieved from: http://www.ctvnews.ca/w5/campus-crisis-why-are-suicide-rates-rising-among- university-students-1.1463654
 “Examinations” University of Toronto Scarborough. Retrieved from: http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~registrar/calendars/calendar/Examinations.html