Sandy Welsh, vice-provost, students, explains the proposed policy
The University of Toronto provides a range of supports and services so that all students can thrive – including those who feel overwhelmed by stress or anxiety.
But there are rare cases in which a student is experiencing a mental health crisis or another similar issue so severe that it is in their best interest to put their studies on hold and focus on their recovery.
The university has developed a new policy for these exceptional situations. This proposed policy provides for students to take a voluntary or university-mandated leave of absence without disciplinary or punitive consequences, and return to their studies when they are ready. It also provides for the exploration of alternate accommodations and supports that may allow the student to continue in their studies without taking a leave of absence.
The university-mandated leave of absence policy stems from a recommendation of the U of T ombudsperson in 2014-2015, when she reviewed several cases of students with serious mental health issues who were subject to the Code of Student Conduct, a more disciplinary policy.
Professor Sandy Welsh, vice-provost, students, sought the input of students, faculty and staff while drafting the proposed policy.
“The goal for me was to create the most appropriate policy for the university and its students. I’m grateful to all those who have met with me and given their advice,” she says.
U of T News spoke to Welsh about the proposed policy, which is set to go the University Affairs Board for recommendation on Jan. 30, before going to the Governing Council for approval in February.
Why is this policy needed?
The policy is designed to be used in exceptional circumstances, and even then only with very significant procedural safeguards for students and a rigorous approach to exploring accommodations and supportive resources.
There will, very occasionally, be acute situations during which a student needs to take a break from their studies to concentrate on their health and to protect their academic record. There are also very rare situations in which a student needs to take a leave in order to protect the safety of others, or their own safety, or to avoid materially and negatively affecting the educational experience of others.
We need a policy that allows us to provide support for a student going through a serious episode involving a mental health or other similar issue. We will now have the tools to formally review a student’s supports and accommodations, and to provide them an option of a voluntary leave and – if necessary – a university-mandated leave.
This policy is designed to offer students a way to take a break from university, get the health care they need, and come back. We want to do this in a way that doesn’t involve the Code of Student Conduct, which is a disciplinary and punitive process.
We want students to come forward to get the mental health treatment they need, and we absolutely do not want to do anything that would make students more reluctant to come forward and get support when they need it.
How would the university decide when to place a student on a leave of absence?
The request to invoke the policy would come from the student’s division head – basically their dean or principal. This means there would have to be some evidence based on the student’s behaviour, and that people have serious concerns about the student’s well-being.
When the student’s case comes to my office, we would look at all the evidence with the student’s case manager and support team. We would also see if we need more information to reach a decision about a leave. This might involve an assessment from a medical professional.
One of the first steps of the process is to provide a much-needed opportunity for staff to further engage with the student and see how we can support them to stay in their program at U of T.
If a leave is recommended but the student disagrees, they can request a review by the provost and if necessary, appeal to the University Tribunal.
How long is the leave?
This will be decided on a case-by-case basis. The student is required to notify the university 30 days before they intend to register again, or the notification timeline may be included in terms and conditions that are decided in advance. The policy allows for a shortened leave if the student provides new information that supports their ability to return early.
Will the student receive credit for completed schoolwork, and will they be reimbursed for tuition?
The university will consider whether academic credit can be given for completed work and if tuition should be repaid. The policy is not a punishment, nor is it disciplinary in any way. We want students to take a break if necessary and focus on their recovery.
What would happen to a student’s academic record if they go on a mandated leave of absence?
In rare circumstances, a student undergoing a severe mental health crisis or similar issue could do harm to their academic record if they stay at university. This is one of the reasons for this policy. It allows us to help a student when they may not realize they need help to protect their academic record. We’ve heard from students who say they appreciate the value of that.
After much consultation and discussion, it was decided that no notation would be placed on the student’s transcript.
How does the university decide when the student can return?
Each student would have a return-to-studies plan stating the expectations that would need to be in place to return to their program. Usually this would involve providing documentation from a health-care professional demonstrating they are well and able to engage in the essential academic activities of their particular program.
If a student is on a mandated leave of absence, can they use campus facilities?
That depends on the circumstances. If a student hasn’t engaged in any behaviour that raises safety concerns and has a good therapeutic relationship with support staff on campus, we have the ability to say they can be on campus for a specific purpose. In a situation of safety concern, we might place a student on leave until they can demonstrate they have received the treatment they need.
How did this policy change in response to your consultations with students, staff and faculty?
We heard a number of thoughtful comments and suggestions. Some resulted in changes to the policy but we realized others would be best answered or clarified in short companion guides to the policy – and we have been gathering information for the guides throughout the consultations.
One of the major concerns we heard about the earlier draft of the policy was that it provided broad powers to remove a student with mental health issues from the university. So we clarified the wording around the scope of the policy, making it clear that this policy actually provides a narrow and prescriptive set of circumstances under which a leave may be invoked. The high threshold for triggering the policy means that it will apply only in a small number of cases annually.
A number of people would be involved in the process including the division head, the vice-provost, students, and staff and faculty who may be supporting the student – and we added equity officers to the student support team.
We also added language to make it clear that the policy provides an opportunity to consider alternative approaches to assist the student.
We heard concerns about confidentiality and privacy around personal information, so we moved the confidentiality and privacy section up to the beginning of the policy and added a specific reference to the Personal Health Information Protection Act, with which all health professionals must comply.
We also added a section clarifying the student’s ability to provide relevant information at any time, and we clarified that the university will consult with a student immigration adviser where appropriate.
Were student groups consulted?
Yes, definitely. We have been consulting the University of Toronto Students’ Union, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union. We have also had meetings with groups of interested students, student governors and student organizations – particularly those that represent students with mental health and other disabilities.