After a month of review, the University of Toronto (U of T) has released the Student Mental Health Task Force’s final report and announced that the university accepts all the recommendations “wholeheartedly.”

U of T’s recently formed Mental Health Task Force completed the final report back in December of 2019, which outlined their findings for U of T’s mental health services and recommended improvements.

The report came after students demanded reform following another student suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology on March 17. The demand for better mental health services led U of T President Meric Gertler to announce the creation of the Task Force and a four-point action plan.

In April 2019, the Task Force, spearheaded by Dr. Trevor Young, Vice-Provost, Relations with Health Care Institutions, dean of the Faculty of Medicine, and psychiatry professor, started conducting research on U of T mental health services and U of T community’s response to the available services.

The Task Force was specifically asked to look at four key areas, including the mental health service delivery at U of T and how to strengthen such services, the coordination between tri-campus student mental health supports and how to improve internal coordination, the partnerships with community-based organizations and hospitals and how to strengthen such external partnerships, and the physical spaces of mental health services on all three campuses.

In its final report to U of T administration, the Task Force also added two areas that “expand beyond the original scope of the mandate” that were discovered during consultations with the U of T community.

These two areas include “Culture at U of T” and “Institutional Systems and Policies,” which comment on the university’s strong reputation for academic excellence and its correlating pressure on students to excel. Their new comments also reflect on the bureaucratic policies that are frowned upon by students, such as the practice of campus police to handcuff students seeking help for suicidal ideation.

The entire report outlines 21 recommendations that “seek to impact immediate, short-term, and long-term efforts to create a caring and safe campus environment.”

The 21 recommendations mainly fall under the four key areas, referred to as “mandates,” with the last seven recommendations falling under “Culture at U of T,” “Institutional Systems & Policies,” or “Next Steps,” which advocates for a permanent wellness advisory committee and a new “institutional strategic research” department in the upcoming years.

On January 15, U of T also released the administrative response to the Task Force’s final report, where it outlined future and ongoing projects that address, albeit sometimes not directly, each of the Task Force’s 21 recommendations.

The final report is sectioned off by mandate with a brief explanation under each recommendation.

For mandate one, the review of mental health delivery at U of T and how to strengthen such services, the Task Force proposed six recommendations.

The Task Force’s proposals to the university include simplifying “pathways to care to increase accessibility to resources and supports,” developing “a comprehensive strategy to enhance mental health literacy among students, staff, and faculty, including knowledge of mental health supports and services,” and increasing “the focus on resources for mental health promotion broadly across the university.”

The Task Force also recommended the university increase access to timely mental health care (in person and via other means), expand the diversity of mental health service providers for students, and enhance coordination and expand direct crisis response support and resources, and establish a tri-campus mobile team for after-hours support.

Under the first recommendation, where the Task Force stressed accessibility to mental health services, the report states that members of the U of T community “struggle to navigate the services available and do not know how to access resources or make referrals appropriately.”

The Task Force recommended “one access point where anyone can easily query what to do if a student is seeking support or is in distress, regardless of campus, division, or college.”

Ways in which this can be accomplished, the report stated, include creating a user-friendly website for mental health at U of T, offering text-based and online appointment booking and confirmations, and increasing after-hours care.

The second recommendation, “enhancing mental health literacy among students,” concentrated on clearly identifying the services that “may be beyond the scope of the university,” and which will result in students being referred to community organizations who may be better equipped for specialized support.

The Task Forces also stressed that better communication is needed on university service expectations such as waitlists, appointment caps, and missed appointments fees.

The fourth recommendation, “increase access to timely mental health care,” asks the university to consider adopting other ways students can access mental health care, such as with apps or online contact with health professionals.

The report discussed in detail the benefits of My SSP (My Student Support Program) that is currently being piloted at the St. George campus. My SSP offers international students with “24/7 confidential, culturally relevant, multilingual support services by phone or chat.”

In its administrative response to the final report, U of T stated that My SSP is now available to all U of T students, both domestic and international.

“[Students] now have access to counselling by phone or text in 146 languages, at any time, day or night,” stated the administrative response.

The Task Force also outlined an increasing concern in their fifth recommendation where the diversity of mental health service providers is questioned.

“It is important to underscore that there is room for improvement in the diversity of our staffing complements across the university and that everyone benefits from diversity,” stated the Task Force’s final report.

“Not all students from underrepresented communities feel the current counselling options are adequate to support their needs and experiences,” continued the report. “When a student encounters an individual at campus mental health services who seems unable to understand them, this can be a barrier to seeking support.”

The Task Force recommended further training is needed for “all U of T employees in order to increase their competencies in working with students from Indigenous, LQBTQ+, and racialized communities, often with intersecting identities.”

The last recommendation, “enhance coordination and expand direct crisis response support,” that falls under “mandate one” calls on the responsibility of the university to offer a crisis mental health response team for evenings and weekends.

“The Task Force understands that the university is not a hospital, so 24-hour services are not practicable,” stated the report. “However, given our student population, the number of students living in residence, and the fact that classes, co-curricular activities, and graduate student research extend beyond the regular nine-to-five, Monday-Friday schedule, the university would benefit from having a mobile, on-call, after-hours urgent mental health response team for evenings and weekends.”

U of T administration responded to this recommendation in their new partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), where “integrated care pathways” between campus services and CAMH will include “crisis management services.”

The U of T administration’s statement does not clearly explain if the “crisis management services” will mean UTM will have an on-call mental health response team for after-hours, such as in the evenings and weekends.

This story is ongoing. More to come.

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