Town Hall on the Mental Health and Wellness Strategic Action Plan 2016-17

Shari Nathan (2L)

The Dean’s Mental Health and Wellness Advisory Committee held a town hall on January 26 to solicit feedback on a draft Mental Health and Wellness Strategic Action Plan.

During the summer of 2016, Academic/Personal Counselling and Wellness Manager Yukimi Henry wrote an initial draft of the Plan based on student consultation from the 2015-16 academic year and research on best practices at other institutions. This draft was then reviewed by this year’s Committee, who will continue to rework the draft in response to student feedback. They aim to present the final Strategic Action Plan to Faculty Council on March 30, 2017.

The town hall was facilitated by Committee co-chairs Assistant Dean Alexis Archbold and Professor Anver Emon. After a brief overview of the Action Plan’s development and substance, they spent the majority of the town hall inviting student comments.

One student raised concerns about the availability of counselling services. The Assistant Dean responded that law students have access to U of T’s centralized Health and Wellness as well as Yukimi Henry’s counselling services. In addition, Ms. Henry confirmed that, although students typically wait two to three weeks for an appointment with her, same-week urgent appointments are available. Students pointed out that an unfortunate side effect of Ms. Henry’s role as an embedded counsellor is that the broader University’s Health and Wellness services prioritize other students over those at the Faculty of Law.

The availability and advertisement of support services during the summerspecifically during the August articling recruitwas also a concern. Assistant Dean Archbold advised that the Faculty of Law is open during the summer and supports are available, and that the Career Development Office’s communications regarding the articling recruit include information about support services. However, the facilitators did not point to any new recommendations aimed specifically at increasing summer support resources or their advertisement.

A number of student comments criticized the vagueness of the draft, specifically that the term “resiliency” was vague and not defined; there were no explicit implementation strategies to “remain receptive to student feedback”; policy review is only to occur “when necessary”; there is a lack of explicit reference to substance abuse; and the Plan failed to differentiate clinical mental health concerns and illness from other types of stress. Assistant Dean Archbold and Professor Emon acknowledged these concerns but did not explain these perceived insufficiencies.

The administration of accommodations for students with mental health concerns was also a dominant theme of student feedback. Currently, students with episodic mental health concerns who miss lectures are forced to ask their peers for notes or recordings; alternatively, students may apply to the U of T Accessibility Services Note-taking Accommodation Service.

Students described a number of problems with the first approach, which places the burden of seeking accommodations directly on individuals without providing reliable support. Students may not want to disclose health concerns to their peers to get notes for missed classes; not have acquaintances in every class; or be apprehensive about the lack of formal policy support. Professor Emon responded that attending office hours could compensate for missed classes. Many students were not satisfied with this response, pointing out that many of their concerns were equally applicable to this solution.

Furthermore, even students who register with Accessibility Services for ongoing note-taking must rely on volunteer note-takers. There is no guarantee that students will volunteer to be registered note-takers for their courses. Students asked about lecture-capture technology, like that employed at other law schools (such as Osgoode) and other U of T Faculties (such as Medicine or Engineering). Accessibility Services encourages the use of lecture-capture technology, and states that installing the required systems alongside other AV updates can ease the transition by minimizing the number of system interruptions and staff retraining sessions. Assistant Dean Archbold said that the Faculty had discussed installing lecture-capture software in the new building but refused to explain why these measures were ultimately rejected. The Assistant Dean claimed that it was an “Associate Dean decision,” but added that the Students’ Law Society (SLS) could still raise this issue in the future.

Students also expressed concern that Faculty messaging often frames accommodations as a sort of “coddling” that students will not receive in the so-called real world. The students argued that accommodation should not be framed as a favour, but rather as something that students are entitled toan attitude expressed in the Ontario Human Rights Code as well as Law Society of Upper Canada reports and guidelines.

For the last half hour of the town hall, the Faculty and administrators excused themselves so that students could relay feedback to student Committee members with only students present. SLS representatives clarified that they had frequently lobbied for lecture-capture technology but their proposals were repeatedly rejected. They also explained that they had already raised the draft’s lack of specificity with the Committee and were told it would be addressed. However, they were not given a revised draft in advance of the town hall in order to verify that those changes were made. Furthermore, they claimed that substance abuse was not explicitly discussed in the report because the administration considers it to be outside the scope of the Mental Health and Wellness Committee.

Some students also recounted details of their individual experiences seeking mental health accommodations. Many students described negative interactions with Faculty of Law administrators, including receiving emails threatening expulsion; obscurity and inconsistency in the administration’s role in the accommodations process; being pressured to drop out during meetings with members of the administration; having Accessibility Services-approved accommodations revoked by the Faculty; and being pushed to disclose details of their illness. These concerns had already been brought to SLS, which confirmed that they will continue to raise these issues with the administration.