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The University of Toronto's Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

Elizabeth Gyde

The University of Toronto was planning for months to erect permanent safety barriers at a building where a student died by suicide last Friday.

The deceased was the third student suicide in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology on the university’s St. George campus in the past 18 months. The university immediately closed the building, put temporary drywall barriers in place and restricted access to the upper floors of the building’s staircase before reopening in time for the start of classes Monday.

Permanent barriers made of glass and wire mesh are expected to be in place in the coming months, the university said.

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“We all wish we had done this sooner,” University of Toronto president Meric Gertler said.

“We were very close to the point of actually installing permanent barriers. In the meantime, we have been elevating the campus police presence in the building and doing other things, hopefully to prevent this from happening.”

The university did not release the student’s name, age or course of study.

Another student died by suicide in the Bahen building in March. Mr. Gertler said that the day after the March incident, the university met with the building’s architects to plan for permanent barriers. The process takes time, however, as materials have to be specially manufactured and permits approved, Mr. Gertler said.

Three people died by suicide on campus in 2018, the same number as in 2017, according to a university spokesman. There are more than 60,000 students enrolled at the U of T’s downtown campus.

Mr. Gertler said the university has invested an additional $3-million over the past two years to provide more mental-health resources, including drop-in counselling. Data show that demand for mental-health services at the university is increasing, but it’s not evident that rates of suicide are increasing, Mr. Gertler said.

“We need some help, we can’t do this on our own. We are not a hospital or a mental health care facility,” Mr. Gertler said. “We have to tackle this challenge together with our community partners, with other health-care institutions in the city, and with greater assistance from government.”

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Joshua Bowman, president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, said the university has not responded appropriately to what he calls a mental-health crisis on campus.

“It’s one thing for our university to recognize that we have a mental-health crisis and another for them to pursue action to remedy it. And I just don’t think that there has been a lot of concrete action,” Mr. Bowman said.

He said students called for the addition of safety barriers in the Bahen building more than a year ago.

“Students did raise concerns about barriers and about wanting more barriers,” he said. “This is not the first time that it has happened.”

Dr. Catharine Munn, a physician and professor of psychiatry at McMaster University, said suicide in the youth population is relatively rare and difficult to predict. Typically the suicide rate for a youth population would be between one and two per 10,000 population, she said. The statistics from U of T are lower, but the figures include only deaths that occur on campus. The university could not say whether it also tracks suicides among students that occur off-campus.

“Every single institution and school needs to think about what they can do to prevent suicide. And it's not just about the building. It's mostly about how they're connecting their people to support,” Dr. Munn said.

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In general, students in post-secondary institutions have much better access to mental-health care than the rest of the population, thanks to universities’ investments in counselling, health services and other supports, she said.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or Crisis Service Canada at 1-833-456-4566, or visit http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/, call 911 or go to your nearest hospital.

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