Back in 1996 when my brother Carey died, dozens of his fellow med students at The University of Toronto, as well as countless friends from all through his short life, showed up at the funeral and shiva to honour his existence on this planet.
That is far more than Carey got from the U of T Medical School administration.
He was ignored. Not a phone call. Not a note. Where his struggling colleagues scrounged to donate a small amount in his name to the fund at CAMH that we started, any acknowledgement of his years at the school was visibly absent.
Now back in 1996 there was literally zero support for med students with mental illness challenges. Almost every time he had to undergo a short hospitalization, he was forced to restart the program from the beginning. He was vilified and penalized. Even though he was in the top 3% of his undergrad class, and had ridiculous potential, he was eventually kicked out. A few weeks later he took his own life.
We aren’t under any pretensions that his status as a med student caused his suicide. Mental illness isn’t that cut and dried. But intolerance from his school in the field that he loved did not help.
Their lack of acknowledgement sat with us for years. And then decades. Until my Mom wrote an uncharacteristically blunt and heartbreaking letter to the current administration outlining the poor behaviour of the faculty and the shoddy treatment of the mentally ill students at the school.
I am thrilled to report that the response from the university was immediate. She was invited to meet with the highest level of administration. They listened with sympathy, and perhaps more importantly, embarrassment. They took full accountability for the past, and spent hours outlining to us the many ways that the U of T Medical School has taken a near 180 degree turn on their approach to mental illness among students. Leaves of absences, myriad programs and resources, safe and private places to take shelter – all of these may have changed Carey’s direction 20 years ago had they been available. But this is something. Really something.
A few weeks ago, we received a letter from the current administration that the school had donated a park bench to Carey’s memory. It sits in Philosopher’s Walk by The Queen Alexandra Gateway. It is a profoundly appreciated gesture – regardless of history. If you are down at the school, seek it out and sit for a while. It’s worthwhile.
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