October 22nd, 2019 | PRISCILLA LAYARDA



Hart House Debates and Dialogue Committee (HHDDC) hosted in partnership with the Hart House Social Justice Committee its first event of the year: “In Conversation on Student Mental Health”. Our mental health is a topic in desperate need for an open conversation on all levels; this event is just one piece of the larger discussion that is taking place across the three campuses and beyond. This event aspired to provide us all as students the opportunity to tell our stories, understand the efforts of others in our community, and share our ideas on improving mental health services, all of which should get us closer to establishing adequate support for students.

We invited a panel of outstanding speakers to offer their unique perspective to further the conversation on the state of the mental health services at the University of Toronto. The panel included Melinda Scott, the Dean of Students at University College, Leah McCormack-Smith, the Dean of Students at New College, Kristen Moore, the Dean of Students at Trinity College, Chad Jankowski, the Mental Health Program Officer at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Elsie Obeng-Kingsley, the representative of the Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, Kate Welsh, the Design Research Team Lead at the Innovation Hub. The event was moderated by Garvia Bailey, co-founder and host/producer of 

You can find the overall flow of the discussion summarized below. Please note that sensitive issues related to mental health may be briefly mentioned.

Kate Welsh, who as part of the Innovation Hub is leading the student consultation process on mental health summarized eloquently the issue we currently face: “I see a system that is very challenging to work with. This was a system that was set up a long time ago. It is challenging to come together and work together on this” yet “based on the people who I interact with, I see a lot of people who care and who are putting their heart and soul be it the student, student activists, faculty, and administrators”. 

What are the core challenges at the heart of the mental health crisis we have at hand?

From the speakers’ perspectives, the issues they have identified from close interactions with students include pressure of getting a high GPA, a culture of competitiveness which may seem uncaring, isolation and loneliness. There are higher pressures now that did not exist a few years ago, and as this is coupled with a lack of mental health literacy, we have a crisis. 

More broadly, we also face a challenge in coordinating and navigating around the mental health system on campus. Within the past three years, the volume of students coming in is increasing, and we are not fully prepared to respond to this challenge. There is an urgent need to find more adaptive ways to respond to students’ needs as well as communicate with students clearly about the actions we are taking. 

What should be done to deal with the mental health issue?

Dr. Melinda Scott emphasized that we need to take on a more holistic approach. Responses should not only come from the Health and Wellness service, but everyone needs to help create a climate to help tackle mental health.

Ms. Kristen Moore adds that we need to build a sense of community, we need to tackle feelings of isolation and loneliness, we need to help folks build resilience, and we need to ensure folks are aware of the resources. 

Ms. Leah McCormack-Smith highlighted that we have to stop reinforcing behaviors that advocate for sacrificing health in pursuit of academics, for instance bragging about staying up all night at Robarts Library.

Ms. Elsie Obeng-Kingsley emphasized the need for every student and faculty to know how to make referrals. The lack of mental health literacy in education is very concerning and because of the diversity in the university, faculty and staff may not have much experience in handling mental health concerns.

What on-campus structures can be improved?

Mr. Chad Jankowski brought up the idea of looking at standards such as the Okanagan Charter which advocates for student health in all actions of the institution. It must be signed by the President, however, and we are waiting for the Task Force to report on the actions to take to ensure the psychological standards we need. 

How can we address policies that supposedly have good intentions but can worsen mental health? For example, the leave of absence of policy.

There is a disconnect between policies and their intended effects. The leave of absence of policy highlights the university's challenge in dealing with mental health due to the lack of communication. In reality, fear of being placed on leave is unfounded because there is a very high bar for the policy to be enacted. Not many students have been placed on leave. It is only valuable for students who are so incredibly ill.

According to Ms. Kate Welsh, some dialogue on concerns over the policy has been facilitated by the Innovation Hub. 

There have been cops escorting students in handcuffs. Why?

This is a very extreme case and is a measure taken only if there is an imminent risk of the student harming themselves or the staff. In the case where we do it, we always do our best to make it as discreet as possible, for example by placing jackets over the handcuffs and taking the backdoor when escorting out of the campus area to get treatment.  

What has been improved so far?

Mental health resources and services are in the process of being expanded. We have created new centers and hired more staff so students can have faster access. 

What do you need that you are currently lacking?

More staff is always welcome as that gives us more knowledge of referrals we make. More funding is also great as it can help realize innovative ideas and projects to help us cater to students’ needs. Better communication between the administration and students would also be needed as we need to work together on this issue.  

The Hart House Debates and Dialogue Committee would like to thank our moderator and speakers who have taken some time out of their busy schedules to share their experiences and answer some of our questions in our event, “In Conversation on Student Mental Health”. While this is only the beginning of many more conversations we need to have to overcome this crisis, we are proud to be able to contribute to advancing the conversation even if just a little bit further. 

Stay in the loop on the current efforts to tackle the current mental health crisis. The Task Force will enter its Phase Three of the consultation stage later this month. Student-led groups including UofThrive and Mental Health Policy Council among others are constantly working on new initiatives for us to get our voices heard. 

Thank you for making it this far into our event summary. Take care. 

These are some of the mental health services available to students:

Downtown Toronto: Health and Wellness Centre (416-978-8030), located at Koffler Student Services

U of T Scarborough: Health & Wellness Centre 416-287-7065 

U of T Mississauga: Health & Counselling Centre 905-828-5255

Round-the-clock support (free 24/7, students, staff and faculty can speak to a trained crisis worker at any hour of the day):

NEW for international students: My SSP for U of T Students 1-844-451-9700. Immediate support is available in 35 languages.

Good 2 Talk 1-866-925-5454

Gerstein Crisis Centre 416-929-5200 

Distress Centres of Greater Toronto 416-408-HELP (4357)

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at 250 College Street

Anishnawbe Health Toronto Mental Health Crisis Line 416-360-0486

Appointed faculty and staff have access to the Employee & Family Assistance Program (EFAP), offered through Homewood Health, online and by phone at 1-800-663-1142.