Content warning: Mentions of mental health issues
In September, the Office for the Dean of Students, released an “Involuntary Leave Policy”, the process for which has now been suspended. An “Involuntary Leave Policy” sub-policy would allow the university to place a student who is “in crisis” on involuntary leave until the student has met the conditions for returning to the University and requests a return.
The proposal specifies that this action would be taken only in the most severe cases, such as if the administration deemed that a student is a danger to themselves or others. Additionally, the proposal stresses that people should not interpret this policy as a disciplinary measure; Instead it is meant to exist in partnership with other support resources for students.
While these caveats show that the administration’s intentions were well-meaning, the Office of the Dean of Students must have the foresight to understand how a policy like this will situate itself into the larger dialogue regarding mental health at McGill, and therefore understand the student opposition they met regarding this proposal. Messages like this proposal should also come with a content-warning, considering the sensitive nature of mental health issues.
Following the proposal’s release, Buddle and the administration faced significant student backlash. In response, Buddle sent out a second public message saying that, in light of student opposition, he would be suspending this policy draft immediately to continue to work with the student body and find alternative solutions for aiding students in crisis. While the Office of the Dean of Students made the right decision to withdraw this policy from consideration, the policy’s mere proposal evinces some of the ways in which the McGill administration has remained oblivious to student concerns about mental health, wilfully or not. While this policy is not necessarily meant to apply only to situations which pertain to mental health, it is crucial that the administration is meticulous and careful when they enter a consultation process for a policy of this sort.
This proposal fails most gravely in that it addresses only the most extreme situations. Regardless of how beneficial an involuntary leave policy would be to students in crisis, the reality is that, in many instances, students can be helped before reaching that point. It seems absurd that the administration would propose an involuntary leave policy when McGill lacks a voluntary leave policy to allow struggling students to take time off after the withdrawal period in the first month of school as ended. Additionally, over the last two years, there has been a consistent and clear message from the student body that the existing mental health resources at McGill are inadequate. Specific instances include the administration’s decision to cut the eating disorder program without informing students who used it; the lack of accessible Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or long-term counselors through any McGill program; and massive wait times for many methods of counseling that are present throughout campus. Further, these resources often rely on unpaid, or at least underpaid, labour. The administration’s continued apathy and failure to provide adequate voluntary resources to aid students’ mental health makes the introduction of an involuntary policy which pertains only to crisis situations seem all the more abrupt and shortsighted. McGill’s administration should take preventative measures before addressing the most extreme scenarios.
“Additionally, over the last two years, there has been a consistent and clear message from the student body that the existing mental health resources at McGill are inadequate.”
In addition, the language used in this policy proposal creates an issue. The proposal also states that a student may be redirected to relevant resources, which could include those pertaining to mental health. However, it is difficult to take a policy that purports to direct students in a crisis situation to the relevant resources seriously when many of those resources simply do not exist. Finally, the policy’s statements regarding a student who is “deemed to be a danger to themselves or others” sends an inappropriate message that those struggling with mental health issues may be dangerous. It is the explicit responsibility of the administration not to alienate or debase individuals who may be battling mental illness, but the language of this proposal has the potential to harm those who are already vulnerable.
In the future, the Office of the Dean of Students and other offices need to treat proposals of this sort with scrupulous care, both in terms of the language they use to discuss mental-health issues, and in their awareness of how a given piece of dialogue will be contextualized in the larger, ongoing conversation between the administration and the student body. Ideally, the administration will strive to be attentive to the concerns of McGill students, take very seriously issues of mental health, and exercise care when it comes to the language they use when speaking about sensitive experiences.