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The University of Toronto is Harming its Students through Institutional Neglect and Psychological Violence | Op-Ed

Trigger and Content Warning: The following article contains descriptions of suicide, suicide ideation, institutional neglect at the university's health and wellness centers, mentions of substance abuse and mood disorders, and more descriptions of the University of Toronto's stressful academic environment. If you feel as if you are in a mental state whereby reading about descriptions of any of the events previously mentioned could trigger a flashback or suicidal episode, we urge you to turn away from this article and take care of yourself first. A link to Canada's crisis services is here: https://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/en/

“If I’m being very honest there has not been one day that I haven’t thought about ending my life during my time at the University of Toronto.”

These words were sent to me by a Forensic Science student at the University of Toronto (UofT) Mississauga who at the time was a high-performing first year. Prior to arriving at UofT, they had no mental struggles nor diagnosable mental illnesses and came from a white, middle-class family.

Since 2018, there have been 5 known UofT student death-by-suicides. The most recent, on November 2 of this year.

Each one has evoked a sense of collective trauma amongst UofT students. Regardless of a UofT student’s identity or grade-point average, they are increasingly experiencing psychological violence while attending university.

And so, we ask:

  • Why has suicide become normalized at Canada’s most prestigious university?
  • When do inadequate mental health supports become structural violence?
  • How does neoliberalism murder its most enthusiastic adherents, the students living and working in one of the wealthiest settler-colonies in the world?

In Short: The following article features numerous student testimonies who have experienced institutional neglect and structural violence at the University of Toronto.

Structural Violence: Structural violence refers to physical and psychological harm inflicted upon individuals through policy and bureaucracy, as defined by Johan Galtung and elaborated upon by Paul Farmer.

Students who experience additional structural barriers, such as poverty, foreign status, neurodiversity, or racial trauma, undergo increasingly disturbing experiences. Each experience exhibits UofT’s institutional and systemic violence against students.

*Author's Note: Gender-neutral pronouns and pseudonyms are used to protect informants’ identities

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The Erasure of Student Voices

At UofT, the aforementioned tragedies begin with the erasure of afflicted students’ voices. Students who, regardless of circumstance, feel pressured to conform to a non-existent, high-performing ideal, developing physical and psychological conditions that cause permanent damage and remain institutionally unaddressed. 

  • Their stories are erased, censored and beautified to preserve UofT’s reputation as an institution which respects students’ bodies and minds.
  • This erasure also inhibits student body solidarity while reproducing an environment, year after year, which is conducive to aberrant levels of competition and, as a result, mental illness.

Consequently, UofT is able to silently commit structural violence against its student population, through withholding mental health support from students who fail to perform academically and socially.

  • The result is a discourse and a system which perpetuates the notion that those who fail to compete do not deserve to live. This message is internalized and perpetuated by UofT’s administration, faculty and, most tragically, its students.

Institutional neglect and psychological violence has become normalized at Canada’s most prestigious university, necessitating an immediate restructuring of UofT’s student health, accommodation and accessibility services.

As a top-ranked academic institution, UofT is ethically responsible for challenging hyper-competitive paradigms for success which repress students all over the world.


Institutional Neglect

Opacity Surrounding Accessibility Services

While institutions such as the University of British Columbia (UBC) provide students with an enrollment services advisor (ESA), the University of Toronto (UofT) withholds information about their accessibility services to first-year students.

Consequently, orientation week becomes anything but orienting for students are left wondering what services exist at the university, and if they are entitled to them at all.

Alex*, a Political Science student from Iran, developed Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) during their time at UofT and was put in touch with a psychiatrist at the end of their third year.

Alex states that this was the “first time [they] had actually heard about accessibility services.”

“It was interesting that this was the first time I had heard about accessibility services, because I had been to the registrar, I am not exaggerating, at least 20 times,” they said.

Alex’s disturbing experience is substantiated with Drew*’s. Drew* is a full-time international student from France in fourth-year life sciences who discovered UofT’s Health and Wellness services at the end of their second year.

In contrast to UBC’s ESA services, where advisors help students in mental distress search for therapy, UofT students are left to do so independently.

Drew explains that, “People don’t have the time. Especially when you’re depressed…why would you even go through the effort of booking, calling?” 

Denial of Services

Numerous students in distress have reported being barred from accessing university-provided psychology and psychiatry services.

Jo*, who identifies as white and queer, from a lower-income family, graduated with an honours Bachelor of Science in 2020. Jo said they experienced suicidal thoughts while attending UofT.

“I waited for a month with a consultation with a psychology grad student. In that meeting, I told them that I had been thinking of killing myself every single day,” they said.

“Following my concession, it still took four months to get an appointment with a psychologist, and not a single check-in was made over those 4 months.”

Jo states they had an incredibly supportive family doctor outside of the university, and that without them, they’re “not sure if [they] would have made it alive to my appointment with a UofT psychologist.”

Similarly, Taylor* says she developed suicidal thoughts at UofT and was denied access to the university’s psychiatry services.

Taylor* is a half-Southeast Asian, half-white, fourth-year social sciences student who has achieved a remarkably high academic standing at UofT. However, even with their accomplishments, they were denied adequate care and basic humanity when diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) at the end of their second year. 

Taylor explains that, “…at the time, I was quite suicidal…you may know that 10% of those diagnosed with BPD die of suicide. So, I thought they would have cared about my situation. I was wrong…”

The primary treatment for BPD is Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), which Taylor said they briefly tried with their college’s embedded counsellor. Taylor states the UofT Health and Wellness psychiatrist denied their admission to the DBT program at UofT psychiatry, on the grounds that Taylor had “learned enough [DBT] from [their] embedded counsellor.”

  • Taylor says they were subsequently asked to sign papers which absolved the university from responsibility for her wellbeing and completely discharged.
  • With their records erased from the UofT Health and Wellness system, they were referred to Stella’s Place, a charity which provides free DBT for all Torontonians. Taylor remains on the waitlist for Stella’s Place to this day.

Similarly, Ylli*, a middle-class, Eastern-European mechanical engineering graduate was also denied access to the university’s health and wellness services.

Ylli states that they “dealt with anxiety and depression all throughout university” and was initially connected with accessibility services. However, in second year, when they found themselves struggling again and seeking a formal diagnosis, they said they were turned away from the Health and Wellness Centre on the grounds that they had already seen an engineering counsellor the year prior.


Psychological Violence

Psychological Suffering

Students who have had no diagnosable mental illnesses prior to arriving at UofT have reported developing chronic depression, mood disorders and severe anxiety at university. Furthermore, those with existing mental illnesses report that their conditions have significantly worsened.

Jordan* is a South Asian-identifying Neuroscience and Mental Health graduate from UofT.

They explain that, “UofT has changed me in so many ways, as well as it has changed many of my friends…I’ve experienced paranoia, it’s exacerbated unhealthy perfectionism, I’ve felt intense apathy navigating UofT, due in part to the psychological tactics UofT admins have used against me, such as stonewalling and gaslighting, all of which I have proof of.” 

Hara* is a third-year Black student at UofT. Their parents live below the poverty line in Michigan, while they live in Toronto full-time.

Hara says that, “UofT has completely destroyed me, to be forward…I’m totally unrecognizable to myself. I’m irritable, anxious, withdrawn…my eating disorder which I recovered from around age 16 came back in full force…And for my entire second year, I entered a year-long depressive episode so severe that I barely remember anything from it and I’m still dealing with the effects of it now.”

Blake* is an American student within UofT’s Ethics Society and Law, Cognitive Science and Philosophy programs. They say that they have a strong academic standing and experienced no diagnosable mental illness prior to UofT.

Blake states that, “I’ve never felt anxious before coming here. I became incredibly competitive. This school has broken me down in many ways. A single grade will now completely wreck me. And there are some moments that are very hard to bounce back from…I feel awful panic attacks. When I leave this school to visit my family and friends, I feel like I can finally breathe again.”

Substance Abuse

Without long-term, easily accessible psychological services, numerous UofT students have turned to substance abuse to cope with UofT’s psychologically violent atmosphere.

Hara* says they became dangerously dependent on their ADHD medication to function and succeed.

They state that they’ve used it “to the point of misuse which has caused me mildly serious heart damage – in April of this year, I had some sort of heart complication that landed me in the ER as a result of my usage.” 

Similarly, numerous students turn to alcohol to cope.

Alex* explains that they began smoking and binge-drinking regularly to cope with their academic and financial stress, in the absence of counselling services in first and second year. Furthermore, Jamie*, a middle-class Chinese student from rural Ontario who is a full-time student at of UofT’s Faculty of Music, also turned to alcohol.  

Suicidality

Suicide ideation is normalized across UofT’s student population, with discussions of ending life occurring in all spaces that students occupy.   

Throughout first and second year, a student who identifies as Southeast Asian and lower middle-class, was attempting to enter a major in Computer Science. They were studying 8+ hours a day, while balancing a part-time job on weekends and becoming addicted to caffeine. They state that they were pushed to their absolute limits, developing suicidal thoughts.

“The idea of suicide became a daily idea, to the point where, in my friend group, jumping of the top floor of the MN building at UTM was mentioned nearly daily,” they said.

Similarly, Jamie* explains that, in the past few years at UofT, they’ve thought about “killing [themself] 4-5 times a month.

“I would think 4-5 times a month I think I would be better off if I was dead. Before UofT, my thoughts were not this bad. These thoughts definitely correspond with my stress at school,” they said.

Mo* is a middle-class, East Asian student in fourth-year Engineering.

They explain, “I started my degree here in 2016 for the same reason that so many others do…the reputation. I was a wide-eyed, ambitious high-school student and got insane grades. I believe my average was 96% coming into university.”

“From the moment I started my degree, I felt inadequate. Living in Chestnut residence did not help as well. Every time I woke up and started the day, the level of panic in all the other engineers was disgusting and I could not escape it.”

As a result of their academic environment Mo* said, “they had suicide on [their] mind every single day of first year. Every. Single. Day. [They] would take up with a pit in [their] stomach and feel worthless.”


Existing Services at UofT are Inadequate

We are here for you when you need us…UofT has taken unprecedented steps to keep community members safe this semester.”

The above statement was taken from a UofT News article, titled “For U of T students, mental health support is available when you need it.”

The article was written to announce UofT’s various online mental health services for students during COVID-19. However, numerous students believe that UofT’s existing smartphone app and crisis lines are not enough for impactful student mental health support. 

  • Denial of in-person services is a pervasive issue which cannot be remediated with virtual tools.
  • Furthermore, UofT students are unable to acquire help with navigating the university’s accessibility services, nor develop long-term relationships with university counsellors.
  • Despite recent developments, UofT’s academic environment remains unchanged.

Alternate Models Exist

Anonymous student informants from the University of British Columbia (UBC) explain that students are provided with enrollment services advisors (ESAs) from the moment they enter the institution.

  • ESAs are responsible for supporting students with finances, as well as accessing the university’s academic accommodation and mental health services. ESAs remain with students for the duration of their degree program. 

Recently, UBC also released an upgraded twenty-four-hour mental health service titled the Student Assistance Program (UBC SAP). Services are available by phone, video, face-to-face (where available), with e-counselling available in multiple languages. UBC’s extensive mental health support system for students, while not perfect, is transparent and accessible.


The Final Word

Through opacity with and denial of accessibility and accommodation services, UofT threatens students’ lives. For every student who dies, there is another who becomes incapacitated. Sometimes, they are traumatized, physically and/or psychologically, for life.

In these ways, conditioning students into becoming “high-performing” individuals, while denying them accommodations, exemplifies institutional neglect.

As psychological violence becomes normalized at Canada’s most prestigious university, students are beginning to challenge the integrity of the higher learning institution itself.


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