Students at the University of Toronto staged a silent protest and a sit-in Monday calling on the university to improve its mental health services after a suicide on campus Sunday night.

About 100 students gathered in a silent protest at the university president Meric Gertler’s office at around 2 p.m. before moving to the Medical Sciences Building, where the school’s governing council was meeting in the evening.

Students at University of Toronto gathered to protest the school’s lack of mental health services on Monday following a suicide on campus Sunday night.
Students at University of Toronto gathered to protest the school’s lack of mental health services on Monday following a suicide on campus Sunday night.  (Andrew Lahodynskyj / Toronto Star)

“We want to make UofT take the mental health crisis seriously,” Shervin Shojaei, a third-year political science student and one of the protest organizers said. “The wait times here are extremely long. It could take up to six months to a whole year to get a slot of maybe 45 minutes to an hour.”

Shojaei and other protestors said this is the third suicide on campus in the past academic year. The university declined to comment on the number of suicides but acknowledged the latest suicide on Sunday night through a series of tweets and in a statement to the Star.

“This is a sad day for the university,” Vice-Provost of Students Sandy Welsh wrote in an email. “On Sunday night, a student fell to his death in the Bahen Centre.”

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Welsh said the student’s family has asked for privacy and the school is providing whatever assistance it can.

Shojaei said the protest started as a silent sit-in in the hallway of the president’s office. A non-silent protest simultaneously broke out outside the building when campus security stopped letting people inside. Eventually, Gertler invited three students to speak at the governing council meeting.

Arjun Kaul, a co-organizer and a fifth-year neuroscience student who was at the meeting, said the council acknowledged services could be improved.

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At the meeting, student Kristen Zimmer pointed out the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s criticism of the University Mandated Leave of Absence policy, established on June 27, 2018.

The policy “provides a nonpunitive option” to the university, giving it the right to ask students to leave when they exhibit “serious concerning behaviour that is threatening or results in negative academic consequences.”

In a letter to the university on Jan. 28, 2019, the Ontario Human Rights Commission chief commissioner Renu Madhane said the policy could possibly contradict the human rights code and allow the university to discriminate on the basis of mental health disability.

“The policy does not require the university to assist students who pose a serious risk of harm to themselves — either in terms of accessing additional supports or calling emergency services,” wrote Mandhane. “Rather, the policy appears to allow the university to immediately put the student on leave and withdraw essential services (housing, health, and counselling services) at a time when the student is in crisis and most in need of support.”

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Welsh said the university is working with community partners to offer support and continuing to put in place measures to help students facing mental health issues.

“The university has a moral obligation to fix this issue,” said Shojaei. “We hope … all the students that have come out signals to the university that we want this crisis to end.”

Premila D’Sa is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @premila_dsa



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