University of Toronto’s new mental health policy punishes mentally-ill students

The threat of mandatory leave will only make students afraid of reaching out

The University of Toronto recently approved a policy that will place mentally-ill students on a mandatory leave of absence based on certain criteria. While it’s meant to serve as a non-punitive measure, the fear of being placed on mandatory leave will leave some students feeling punished just the same.  

The leave would only be authorized if administration becomes aware that a student poses a risk to themselves or others. The process begins with a request to invoke the policy by the student’s division head. Evidence, which might involve the student being assessed by a medical professional, is then presented to the provost to determine if the student meets the threshold for invoking the policy. The policy will also be reviewed every three years.

While well-intentioned, this policy will only negatively affect students. Many made to take the leave will be forced to take it against their will, causing them to fall behind in their academic career, graduate late, and possibly worsen their mental health.

Student mental health is a considerable problem not just at the U of T, but the University of Alberta as well. In Spring 2011, a survey of U of A students by the National College Health Assessment found that 18 per-cent felt isolated, 6.8 per cent had seriously considered suicide, and that 1.2 per cent had attempted suicide in the previous year.

The reality is that students are under enormous academic and social pressure. There’s immense pressure to even get accepted into university, and from there the burdens piles on: maintaining grades, high tuition rates, and working, on top of going to school serves as a recipe for disaster. It’s already difficult for students to come forward due to fear of judgement from peers, and being forced to leave school broadcasts to family, friends, future employers, and graduate programs that the student is grappling with mental health issues, possibly negatively affecting those relationships.

Academic leave can be beneficial to some students, but for students who prefer a more private solution, the possibility of being ordered to leave discourages them from ever seeking help or disclosing that they have a mental illness. If this policy leads mentally-ill students to subvert all efforts to improve their health, then it’s a punishment, not a benefit.

The U of T argues that the policy improves on existing measures in the student code of conduct that were disciplinary in nature, such as academic probation or suspension for one or more terms. In comparison, this policy is meant to be non-punitive; students can return after their leave of absence, and there are opportunities to receive credit for courses completed, as well as tuition reimbursements. The school also asserted that the policy will only be applied in rare cases, only after other measures have been considered.

However, it’s not enough for a policy to be merely well-intentioned. Despite 18 months in the making, the policy undeniably falls short. For mentally ill students, coming forward to seek help is always risky.  Fear of judgement, isolation, and now being placed on mandatory leave has unwittingly obstructed many students from seeking help at all. It seems that for mentally-ill students at the U of T, the only options are suffering in silence, or suffering off-campus.

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