Due to Canada-wide increases in instances of student mental illness since 2011, post-secondary institutions have developed a certain obligation to accommodate and prioritize their student’s mental health – but has the ‘Harvard of the North,’ the University of Toronto (UofT), done so?
Mental health services are particularly relevant in the wake of what McLean’s Magazine declared “a mental health crisis on campus” in 2012 . The McLean’s report repeatedly found great increases in demands for mental health services in universities across Canada in 2011 and 2012: Ryerson saw a 200 percent increase in demand for support for mental health related crises, 51 percent of students at the University of Alberta reported feeling as though “things were hopeless” within the past year, and Queen’s saw four suicides within the span of 14 months . This means post-secondary institutions such as UofT have an increasing demand to meet and an important job to do in caring for student’s mental health.
UofT’s primary sources of mental health services come from the school’s Accessibility Services. These services aim to aid students struggling with mental health issues through: assessments for mental health issues; accommodations for notes, tests, and exams; individual and group counselling; learning strategists; and, peer mentoring . A variety of professional services are also offered at UofT, through which support for mental health (including training programs for handling mental illness and supporting sufferers) – but are these accommodations enough for the mental health treatment demands faced by UofT?
UofT’s 2014 ‘Report on the Provisional Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health’ showed that all three campuses also run a variety of multidisciplinary mental health initiatives (such as Exam Jam, and October as Mental Health Awareness Month), and from 2011 to 2012, University of Toronto St. George Campus (UTSG) offered almost 50 different initiatives directed towards mental health, including webinars, drop-in therapy, support groups, and workshops. University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC) offered 45 initiatives to support students, and University of Toronto Mississauga Campus (UTM) offered 40 . It was found that from 2011 to 2012, 3,814 students used UTSG’s Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS), comprising 16,323 total visits, UTSC’s Health and Wellness Center saw 19,968 visits, of which 17% were counselling related, and UTM had 1,100 counselling visits .
Despite these impressive service numbers, UofT is not renowned for its mental health services. They are instead looked down upon, as proven by The Varsity’s 2014 article, ‘It’s Time for U of T to Prioritize Mental Health,’ which implored UTSG to improve CAPS, and Vice’s 2015 article ‘This UofT Student Says He was Kicked out of Residence after a Suicide Attempt.’ In order to gauge the reasons for this disdain, 30 students, 10 from each UofT campus, all with mental illness issues, were interviewed and surveyed about mental health services at their campuses. Responses reflected general resentment towards the programs, largely for their extended wait times, which were reported to be, on average, at least 2-3 months at UTSG, and several weeks to a month at UTSC and UTM for counselling services.
“When I need help, I need help. I can’t wait two months for my appointment, everything has usually changed by then,” said one student. Another stated: “mental health isn’t like switching your courses, it means having someone care, it’s hard to feel like they’re supporting you when you just feel like they have no time for you”.
Another large issue was feeling a connection with counsellors, and feeling comfortable discussing mental health issues. This discomfort is exactly what prompted one of those interviewed, UTSG student Lina Nguyen, to team up with UofT’s Vietnamese Students Association to arrange a mental health workshop to help teach students, with emphasis on Eastern Asian students, about mental health, awareness, and treatment.
“When I first entered university everything was different and I had encountered mental health issues. I had been to CAPS but had a really negative experience,” Linda says, “I felt they were a bit emotionless, I know they have to stay professional but there was no connection. That’s when I started seeking help on my own.”
Linda’s workshop was one of many student-run initiatives that have gone on as students start to take mental health services into their own hands – but should they? How can a school with so many initiatives and opportunities for mental health treatment face such harsh criticisms from its students? The issue may not be the programming, but rather one of two things: accessibility and awareness. Of the thirty students interviewed, only two recognized over half of the initiatives that the school ran throughout 2014. No one can deny an effort is being made by the university, but the effectiveness of their effort is still up for debate.
By: Alexa Battler
Edited by: Alisia Bonnick
Image by: Angelo Lopez
 Lunau, Kate. “The Mental Health Crisis on Campus.” Maclean’s Magazine, 5 September 2012. www.macleans.ca.
 The University of Toronto Student Mental Health Strategy and Framework. “REPORT OF THE PROVOSTIAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON STUDENT MENTAL HEALTH.” University of Toronto. University of Toronto. October 2014. http://mentalhealth.utoronto.ca/sites/default/files/Report%20on%20Student%20Mental%20Health%202014.pdf?