A letter to students, faculty and staff from President Gertler on student mental health at U of T
March 28, 2019
To all members of the U of T community:
The past two weeks have been an extremely difficult time for our community, as we mourn the tragic death of one of our students.
I would like to thank the many students and others who have come forward to voice their concerns, share their experiences and offer advice on improving services to students experiencing mental illness while promoting health and wellness across the University. Let me say that we have listened, we have heard you, and we will continue to do so. We share your concerns, and we are strongly committed to collaborating with you to address them.
This tragedy – especially after similarly tragic events earlier in this academic year – has triggered profound shock, sorrow, anger and frustration. It has also triggered an extraordinarily important discussion about suicide prevention and student health and wellness more broadly. This discussion has been collegial and thoughtful. It has heightened awareness of these issues throughout the U of T community. It has also helped position us to make significant progress in the future. I am writing today to announce some crucial next steps, as we work together to address this serious challenge.
Our highest priority
Before I continue, I would like to emphasize that the success and wellbeing of our students – mental and physical – is the University’s highest priority. Students are at the heart of our mission as an academic institution. When we learn that one of our students is suffering or struggling, we want to help. And when a student suffering from mental illness or severe emotional distress dies by suicide, we are devastated and heartbroken.
As I noted in a recent interview on CBC’s Metro Morning, University officials may sometimes be unable to specify publicly the cause of a tragedy, because of our responsibility to respect the privacy and wishes of parents who have lost a child. I recognize that, in such instances, it may appear that our intent is to inhibit or discourage a wider discussion of socially troubling issues. I can assure you that this is not our intent. We must all work to counter the kind of silence that inhibits people who are suffering from asking for help.
A growing challenge – locally and nationally
On the broader issue of health and wellness, we recognize that young adults are experiencing much higher levels of stress, and are also reporting much higher rates of mental health challenges in recent years. As documented in the report on Student Health and Wellbeing, our experience of these dramatic changes at U of T is very similar to that of our peer universities in Canada, and the scale of the problem is extremely worrisome. The 2016 National College Health Assessment survey found that 46 per cent of Ontario post-secondary students reported feeling so depressed in the previous year that it was difficult to function (this had increased from 40 per cent in 2013); 65 per cent reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety in the previous year (up from 58 per cent in 2013); and 2.2 per cent reported a suicide attempt within the previous year (up from 1.5 per cent in 2013). This is in the context of a very sobering, national reality – that fully one in five Canadians will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime, and 70 per cent of such issues emerge before the age of 25. We also note the challenges students commonly face at this stage in life – their first encounter with the demands of post-secondary studies, and for some, their first experience of living away from home.
At the same time, from conversations already underway in recent months through the Expert Panel on Undergraduate Student Educational Experience (USEE), we recognize that our students’ wellbeing may also be impacted by another issue – that is, what some feel to be undue levels of pressure from a competitive environment, pressure that might make it harder for students to flourish, constrain their academic progress, or for some even impact their mental health.
The Student Mental Health Framework
In response to these challenges, we have been working steadily to address the needs of our students. Through the Student Mental Health Framework, launched in 2014 under the leadership of the Provost following extensive consultation with the University community, we have made progress on several fronts. For example, across all three campuses in 2017-18, we provided more than 31,300 mental health counselling appointments, an increase of almost 30 per cent from 2013-14. However, we have not yet managed to meet the overwhelming increase in demand. On the St George campus alone, from 2013-14 to 2018-19 the number of students registered with Accessibility Services with a mental health disability has more than doubled.
In this light, we appreciate fully that we need to keep working to advance the priorities identified in the Framework. The first priority is to ensure that all students are informed of all programs and services available, and how and when to access them. The next is to expand proactive programming to develop positive mental health and resilience, and to engage students early when problems arise. Another priority is to develop mental health awareness among students, staff and faculty, to create supportive and inclusive conditions for students to flourish, and to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues. In addition, the Framework highlights the need to coordinate, benchmark and assess the effectiveness of programs to ensure they are accessible, sustainable and cohesive.
We also recognize that we will succeed only if we are able to act in concert with other partners outside the University. We know that we must enhance our collaboration with local health care institutions and agencies. We know that we must also engage our partners in the provincial and federal governments. For the past few years, we have been working with the Council of Ontario Universities and other key stakeholders, including provincial student organizations, to address the challenges we face in our sector through a common action plan (please see In It Together: Taking Action on Student Mental Health).
A plan of action: four elements
Accordingly, I would like to outline our plan of action, which has four key elements.
First, the Provost and I will establish a Presidential and Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health, whose primary task will be to review mental health supports and services for students at U of T. The Task Force will be chaired by Dr. Trevor Young, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry. Senior assessors will include Professor Sandy Welsh, Vice-Provost Students, and Professor Joshua Barker, Vice-Provost, Graduate Research and Education and Dean of the School of Graduate Studies. The membership of the task force will be drawn from our students, faculty and staff, with administrative support from the Office of the Vice-Provost Students. We will soon invite nominations for these positions, and announce terms of reference and a timeline for reporting. Consultations with students and student groups, as well as the other stakeholders in our community, will be a key part of the task force’s mandate. The task force will also be asked to draw extensively from the wide range of excellent research and clinical expertise provided by our U of T faculty members.
Second, the USEE Expert Panel will be asked to consider explicitly the broader issue of learning cultures, competitiveness, student wellbeing and student supports in its deliberations and its recommendations.
Third, senior administrators will engage immediately with our partners in the health system in the Toronto region to strengthen our ability to collaborate and to refer students experiencing mental illness so that they can receive the specialized care they need.
Fourth, we must redouble our efforts to impress upon the provincial government the need to provide significantly more resources in order to meet the overwhelming needs that we collectively face. We plan to enlist the support of COU and other provincial partners to renew our advocacy around the In It Together: Taking Action on Student Mental Health report and its recommendations for concerted action.
Thanks to our community
Let me close by offering my thanks and appreciation to the thousands of staff and faculty members across the University who are engaged in supporting our students on a regular basis. Because of their care and commitment to student wellbeing and success, they too are deeply affected when we learn that a student has died by suicide. They also share the frustrations involved in trying to meet a massive demand for services in our community while the publicly funded health system remains significantly under-resourced. These dedicated professionals and generous mentors often go unnoticed in their vital work. Every day they make a difference for the better in the lives of our students on our three campuses. They are indispensable in carrying out our mission, and they deserve great credit for their countless contributions to the University. (I encourage any faculty and staff members who experience distress at any time, to access the services identified in Professor Hannah-Moffat’s memo of March 20, 2019, on the subject of Community Mental Health and Wellness Resources. I also encourage faculty and staff seeking information on how to help students in distress to refer to that same memo.)
I would also like to thank all members of the U of T community once again, for your deeply compassionate responses to our recent tragic losses, and for your initiative and insights in helping to lead us forward. In this sad and difficult time, our community members – and especially our students – have given us new reason for hope that together, and with our partners beyond our campuses, we can move steadily closer to a time when every single member of our community feels free to share their struggles, and fully supported as they strive to overcome them.
Meric S. Gertler
President, University of Toronto