U of T students demand action on mental health

Protest comes day after public death by suicide

By Jack O. Denton
The Varsity

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

(CUP)—In the wake of a public death by suicide on campus, students are demanding urgent attention to mental health at the University of Toronto (U of T).

Approximately 100 students gathered outside Simcoe Hall on Monday afternoon, meeting what they perceive as silence from the university’s administration on mental health with their own solemn silence.

Toronto emergency services were called to the Bahen Centre for Information Technology on Sunday night in response to a medical emergency. Toronto Police have ruled the death non-suspicious and non-criminal. This marks the second death by suicide in the past year at the Bahen Centre, a hub for students studying computer science and engineering at U of T.

Congregating outside Simcoe Hall, the protest grew in numbers until shortly after 3 p.m., when students moved inside to sit on the second floor of the administration building. Students were seen holding signs with slogans including “the university is complicit” and “you can’t ignore us forever.”

By 5 p.m., students had moved across King’s College Circle to the Medical Science Building, where a Governing Council Business Board meeting was taking place. The Business Board meeting was originally scheduled to take place at Simcoe Hall, but the location was changed on short notice.

Padraic Berting, a third-year student, was one of the organizers of the protest. “This is an issue that’s very personal to me,” Berting said, and noted that this was the third death by suicide on campus in the past year that he was aware of.

Berting said that he’s disappointed that the university’s administration seems unwilling to recognize what he and many others are calling a “mental health crisis” on this campus. “I felt that the only way to actually do something was to try and make it more of a public statement,” he said. “So that they will be publicly compelled to do something.”

Second-year student Sabrina Brathwaite said that she came out to the protest “because there have been a number of deaths on campus” and that “there must be an emphasis on action and policy change.”

“I’m somewhat cynical in terms of student protests and admin changing things, but I think it’s better than nothing, and I think that at the very least it shows that there are people who care,” Brathwaite said. “A protest like this will show admin that people are watching.”

Sana Mohtadi, a second-year student, said that she went to the protest “to see the sheer magnitude of the mental health crisis at U of T.”

“It’s incredible to see such solidarity on a campus that often feels really isolated,” Mohtadi said. “I thought it was a great starting point for renewing a conversation about mental health on campus.”

The two deaths at Bahen are inseparable from the computer science student community.

“I think that there’s ways that the program is more stressful than it has to be,” said Maxwell Garrett, a second-year computer science student who was at the protest.

Garrett said that he is saddened by the deaths in Bahen, a space in which he and many others in the computer science program spend much of their time. “It’s a little stressful, just knowing that two students have ended their life there,” Garrett said.

Anam Alvi, a fourth-year computer science student present at the protest, was studying in Bahen the night when the death occurred. Alvi said that she came out to the protest because she wants to put pressure on the university to recognize that “people aren’t okay with this lack of acknowledgement and lack of action,” even if it means hurting the reputation of the university.

“It’s incredibly hard to realize that this happened so close to home, that this is someone in our community,” Alvi said. “This is a building that so many people in our program commune around, it’s such a safe space for all of us.”

Alvi said that she can’t see herself going back to Bahen anytime soon. “It changes what it means to be there, at least for the time being.”

Hundreds of students at the University of Toronto protested for more mental health support on Monday. PHOTO: SHANNA HUNTER / THE VARSITY

Hundreds of students at the University of Toronto protested for more mental health support on Monday. PHOTO: SHANNA HUNTER / THE VARSITY

Janine Robb, executive director of the Health & Wellness Centre at U of T, said that the centre had been working hard to provide support to students impacted by the recent death, including accepting short-notice appointments and bringing in an outside provider to be on campus today for extra support.

Robb acknowledged the “tragic accident” that occurred at Bahen, and reiterated that the university is unable to share any more details at this time because the victim’s family has not provided permission for the university to do so.

“We’re really focused more on students who witnessed or who are affected by what happened,” Robb said.

Speaking about the availability of mental health resources on campus, a subject of scrutiny from many of the students at the protest, Robb said that Health & Wellness “provides and allocates counsellors as soon as we are aware of the situation.”

“We take mental health very seriously, and we’re certainly aware of it being a tragic and common problem in our society and in our community,” Robb said. “I would tell you that it’s a public health issue. I think my staff are doing a very good job of responding to the need.”

“To me it seems we’re never seen as supportive enough, despite our best efforts, and I’m just not sure how to change the dialogue on that,” Robb said.

Joshua Grondin, vice-president university affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, said that he raised the issue of emergency mental health supports on campus in a January meeting with the Office of the Vice-Provost Students.

Grondin said that he specifically suggested that a safety net or barrier be installed at Bahen, and proposed that the university investigate implementing 24-hour counselling services at Robarts Library during the months of March and April.

While the protest was characterized by silence, some students believe that frank words are the way to bring about change. “I think people who were there need to talk about what they heard, what they saw,” Alvi said. “I think it will bring gravity to the situation.”

If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • George Brown College counselling at St. James: 416-415-5000 ext. 2107 / Casa Loma: 416-415-5000 ext. 4585 / Waterfront: 416-415-5000 ext. 5370
  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Toronto Distress Centre help line at 416-408-4357
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

With files from Josie Kao.


U of T students demand action on mental health