A psychologist led the audience in deep-breathing exercises and volunteer counsellors sat at dinner tables at a semi-formal student banquet held to raise awareness about suicide at Guelph University on Thursday. The event was a response to the suicides of four students at the university this academic year, an unusually high number that is leading to added support and discussion on campus.
The university is working with the Canadian Mental Health Association to bolster its counselling services, holding focus groups and a town hall this spring to survey students. And more students are training in bystander intervention in order to spot the signs of mental distress early.
Students are leading many of the initiatives. Thursday's banquet – which sold about 200 tickets – was organized by the undergraduate psychology society.
"The goal is to get people to speak about suicide. It's not a taboo," said Michaela James, one of the lead organizers of the event and a fourth-year student. "Right now, it's stigmatized."
Across the country, the risks of not addressing mental-health challenges are growing. College and university students say their overall health is in decline. In the most recent national survey of student health, released in September, reports of anxiety and depression increased. Thirteen-per-cent more students said they had considered suicide compared with the numbers in 2013. At the same time, almost a tenth fewer students reported being in excellent or very good health.
Guelph is typical of the situation, said Brenda Whiteside, the university's associate vice-president of student affairs.
"All universities are seeing an increase in the number of students struggling with anxiety. Students seem to be more stressed," she said.
As a result, the demand for mental-health services far outstrips the growth in enrolment, by roughly a four-to-one ratio.
"We have an exponential increase in need," she said.
Ms. James is focused on addressing mental health because her own brother took his life, she told the audience.
"My brother was the glue to my family," she said. "After his passing, I fell apart. We fell apart. I swore to myself that I would live every day of my life in honour of him. I would help people who felt the darkness that he felt."
Other speakers stressed that removing anxiety about disclosing suicidal thoughts is critical in order for family members or close friends to be able to help.
"How did something so tragic happen when at no point did this heartbreaking outcome ever enter our thoughts as a possibility?" said Myrna Hutchison, whose son Steven killed himself while he was away at university in 2013. "None of us had any idea just how intense his internal struggles were, how much additional weight he was carrying on his shoulders as the walls of stigma continued to build," she told the audience.
Some of the stress students feel comes from academic requirements, some said. Marking schemes, in which exams count for 40 per cent or even 60 per cent, or multiple exams held on the same day, should be reviewed.
"The way courses are designed can emphasize high-stakes exams," said Rawy Shaaban, a member of the Mental Health Support Initiative, a student group at Guelph. "I see students trying to cope, there are all kinds of unhealthy habits."
But while stress or pre-existing mental-health conditions can put students at risk of mental-health problems, it is not clear that such issues can explain suicide, Dr. Whiteside said.
"Each case is very unique. You can't make assumptions that a student did not have enough support or that they were not doing well academically," she said.
In fact, this fall, Guelph had increased its mental-health resources for students, she added. The next step for the university is to embed mental-health initiatives into the curriculum and in each course.
Almost 2,900 students have signed a petition also asking for a university-wide mental-health strategy. Connie Ly, a former student and residence don at the university, who began the petition, said she feels it has helped.
"It showed the school that this is something that students felt strongly about … People have messaged me and texted me to say that this has opened up a lot of dialogue, people are talking at the library [about mental health]. That was not something you casually talked about before."