Depressed, fatigued and unable to get out of bed to eat — for a while, this has been Chloe. Thankfully, she doesn’t have class.
Last month she would have a counsellor supporting her. But now, she can’t bear the idea of speaking up for the fear of being forced to go on leave. Chloe’s not the only one who has felt this way since June.
The University-Mandatory Leave of Absence Policy (UMLAP) is an attempt to addresses acute mental-health crises on campus and was implemented June 27, 2018. A draft was revealed in the fall of 2017 and waves of complaints have been rolling in ever since – including one from Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, who was “concerned that the policy does not strike an appropriate balance.”
The biggest concerns seem to be of effective care and worsening stigma. There are two general cases in which the policy could come into play: first, the student is at risk of seriously harming themselves and/or others; second, the student is also unable to engage in activities fundamental to their education. A student case manager and support team will be appointed, and ideally a student would only be placed on leave in the worst-case scenario, as Vice Provost Sandy Welsh has said.
The policy “emphasizes that the mandated leave of absence is not to be punitive,” Welsh said. While on leave, students have the opportunity not only to recover, but also to return after leave without academic penalty.
Doyun Kim, a fifth-year student, believes the second scenario is unclear, making it difficult to predict benefit of the policy in the long run.
“Expecting everyone to be able to work with the limited amount of support and care the university can provide is unfair and likely to exacerbate some students’ situations,” Kim adds.
The current mental-health landscape on campus is unsustainable and the university has yet to address the understaffing issue. The policy itself has specific areas, such as what mandated leave might entail, but it appears to lack clarity in some places.
Zhenglin Liu, a student representative on the University Affairs Board, laments that based on the wording, “There is no guarantee that the student will not be made significantly financially worse off, left without housing, or denied access to campus healthcare.”
Article 16 states that the policy doesn’t override existing policies; the punitive leave of absence in the Code of Student Conduct could be applied before UMLAP in any situation where there appears to be “an urgent and/or serious situation of risk or potential risk of serious harm.”
Does this mean a student at risk of attempting suicide could be put on a permanent leave instead?
“In May, Provost Regehr threatened that she would remove the policy from the (University Affairs) Board’s consideration if it voted to consider the policy for a longer period of time,” recalled Liu.
Regehr, among others, suggested “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,” when neither are clear indications of self-harm or unstable mental state. These comments suggest an outdated perspective on those with mental-health issues.
While things may seem to be harsh, the university has a duty to protect more than 90,000 students. The process of creating this policy arose from genuine concern and I don’t believe it should be retracted. That being said, there is an urgent need for some of the statements to change for the policy to serve its purpose effectively.
One Reddit user pointed out that the policy seemed “intended to be a way to limit the university’s liability, by making the at-risk students someone else’s problem.”
Josh Grondin, who spoke at the concluding meeting, stated he saw governors sleeping during his speech. I do not wish to discourage people from fighting against the policy, but instead to bring people from the two extreme sides closer to a consensus.
We, as a university, need to address mental health policy as a machine geared specifically to the student body for which it is responsible. We must create a safe, inclusive, and respectful system readily available to all students in need, when in need.
By Estelle Tang
Image by Adley Lobo