Photo: Rame Abdulkader/The Fulcrum
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Student says she was handcuffed on campus by police twice since February

Content warning: Suicide

Camelia Skaf, a second-year student at the University of Ottawa, is well-acquainted with the school’s mental health care system. Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), she’s no stranger to the counselling services offered at the school’s Student Academic Success Service (SASS) or the Marie Curie walk-in clinic. 

Skaf is also no stranger to being turned away. She says her nine hospital visits this past year all resulted in referrals that have failed to get her the treatment she needs. She says her requests for dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), an integral part of BPD treatment, through the university’s Centre for Psychological Services and Research went unanswered, despite having a referral from her learning specialist with SASS. 

On Feb. 25, Skaf recalls experiencing an episode. She woke up with the overwhelming sense that someone was going to hurt her — paranoia is a symptom of her mental illness — and so, when she went to Marie Curie’s walk-in clinic to get an exam deferred, she was carrying knives.

At Marie Curie, Protection Services were called. Skaf says she cooperated and handed over the knives, but she says a concerned friend had informed Protection Services that she may be considering suicide. In light of that information, police were also called to the scene.

“I was telling them, ‘there’s no point in me going to the hospital because they’re not going to do anything,’ ” said Skaf, who is studying French and applied ethics. “‘They’re not going to screw with my meds. I’ve been nine times before this year, I know the drill.’ Didn’t stop the police from putting me on the ground, in handcuffs, screaming and crying.” 

Ottawa police confirmed that they were called to Marie Curie on Feb. 25 in response to a person who was suicidal. 

Skaf says she blacked out and woke up in the back of the police cruiser, on her way to Montfort Hospital. Before she was sent away, Skaf saw a doctor and was given a referral for DBT.

“It was so hard to come back on campus,” she says. “I had bruises everywhere. For a bunch of days, I couldn’t be around people. It just really fucked with me. It’s like old trauma that builds on top of new trauma.” 

Three days before what would be the sixth student death in the span of a year, Skaf says she was handcuffed for the second time.

On March 11, Skaf says she arrived at Tabaret Hall and began to post signs on the glass wall across from U of O president Jacque Frémont’s office. She has been a regular participant in similar protests in association with the student activism demanding improvements to the U of O’s mental health care system. 

Skaf notes that tours with prospective students were underway in Tabaret Hall on the first floor. 

Skaf says she was told by a Protection Services officer that some of the phrases on her signs —  such as “I don’t want to die in Sandy Hill” — were “worrying.” They then asked her if she needed to go to the hospital, which she declined. Then the officer asked her for her student identification card, and she refused.

“They’re like, ‘we already know who you are because we already had to deal with you.’ I was like, ‘perfect, you don’t need my card,’ ” she said.

By this time, Skaf says two Protection Services officers and a supervisor were talking to her. Skaf says she became agitated and says the officers were poorly trained to handle her behaviour, continually asking her to stop moving, speaking, and looking around.

“I really can’t do shit that doesn’t make sense,” she says. “Cognitive dissonance, like it doesn’t work, and I have issues with the law. Why do I need to give you my card if you already know who I am?”

Second-year student Camelia Skaf. Photo: Rame Abdulkader/The Fulcrum

According to the interim directive to the university’s carding policy, introduced after a Black student was carded and handcuffed on campus in June 2019, individuals have the right to choose not to provide their identifying information and should be informed of this by Protection Services personnel.

Skaf says the Protection Services officers continued to pressure her to produce her identification, and eventually the authorities were called. Skaf says that even after the arrival of the four police officers, the three campus security officers remained on the scene.

“I’m really there crying and I’m just like, ‘wait, wait,’ and they’re like, ‘what are we waiting for? We gotta go,’ ” she said.

Skaf says she was handcuffed by police and escorted out of Tabaret Hall, on the basis that, having failed to produce her identification, she was trespassing. The police talked to her in the cruiser before releasing her.

Ottawa police confirmed that they were called to Tabaret Hall on March 11 after Protection Services officers asked for assistance regarding a trespass.

Protection Services declined to comment on these incidents, directing inquiries to the university’s media relations department instead.

Isabelle Mailloux-Pulkinghorn, the university’s media relations manager, also declined to comment.

“I can … not comment on alleged nor confirmed incidents to protect the privacy and the confidentiality of our students,” she wrote in an email to the Fulcrum.

Skaf says she wanted to come forward because she thinks these incidents highlight serious shortcomings in Protection Services’ training, understanding, and empathy in their treatment of students who are dealing with mental health issues.

Skaf says that there is a general feeling of frustration among those who have been involved in mental health activism on campus. She and others have been pushing for the amendment of academic policies, more specialized mental health care, and better access to off-campus therapy, ambulances, and sick notes, which all cost students out of pocket under the current system.

She also criticizes what she calls a “full disconnect between the administration and the students of the school.” 

“It’s hard being a student with problems on a problematic campus,” she says. “Because then I just cause problems.”

She also hopes to bring attention to what she calls a continued absence of concrete administrative response to concerns about mental health.

“Good crisis? I’m gonna give him a good crisis. Jacques, you go get handcuffed to a stretcher and tell me if it’s a good crisis,” she says, referencing the president’s comments at the March 12 town hall on inclusion and anti-racism.

Frémont first said the U of O was facing a mental health “crisis” in a press conference on Feb. 11 following the fifth student death in the span of a year.

Skaf’s first incident came just before the Feb. 26 town hall on mental health, during which students were encouraged to bring forward their concerns about the ongoing mental health crisis on campus. Frémont was not present, and Skaf says she’s disappointed to have seen little results from that meeting in the weeks since.

A non-comprehensive list of local mental health resources appears below…

On campus…

  • University of Ottawa Health Services (UOHS), 100 Marie-Curie Private
    • Offers counselling, psychiatric services, individual, couple or family therapy, access to psycho-educational groups and referrals to specialists off-campus
  • Student Academic Success Service (SASS), 100 Marie-Curie Private
    • Offers individual counselling, peer-counselling, workshops, online therapy and group counselling using new stepped model; referrals
  • Faculty mentoring centres (locations differ by faculty)
    • Specialized mentoring services catered to the needs of students in each faculty

Off campus…

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.