On Sunday, March 17, a University of Toronto student killed himself in the Bahen Centre of Information and Technology.
On Friday, Feb. 15, a Concordia University student died by suicide in the Visual Arts building.
Modern life being what it is, students knew about these incidents within minutes, as news spread on social media such as Twitter and Reddit.
But most striking was the response to these shocking incidents from the respective university administrations.
The morning after the U of T death, the engineering department issued a tweet simply stating the building was closed until further notice. The university administration, for its part, made a cryptic reference to a “recent incident at the Bahen Centre,” and urged students to “respect the privacy of the individual involved” while reminding them the numbers of crisis hotlines.
In response, a group of angry students organized a silent protest outside the president’s office, denouncing the university’s refusal to utter the word “suicide,” while noting it was at least the third campus suicide this year.
At Concordia, within hours of the death of Ming Mei Ip, 24, an e-mail was sent to Fine Arts students acknowledging the suicide, and providing information on where to seek counselling.
Faculty staff, along with students, held an emergency meeting on the weekend to plan their response. By Monday morning, they had printed up posters announcing Ms. Ip’s death, arranged for counsellors to visit every class, brought in therapy dogs and arranged art-therapy workshops. They then asked students when it would be appropriate to reopen the classroom where the death occurred, and they decided that it should occur only after a “healing ceremony” attended by Ms. Ip’s family, along with students and staff.
Traditionally, the response to the suicide of a student on a college or university campus has been to hush it up, to release as little information as possible and act like every death is an isolated incident.
Students, to their credit, are saying loud and clear that this silence is no longer acceptable.
The type of protest that occurred at the University of Toronto, one born of frustration, has occurred at dozens of campuses around the country. It is time we started listening to these cries for transparency – and help.
When schools refuse to utter the word “suicide,” they perpetuate stigma and shame, and they sidestep their responsibility to the community.
We don’t know exactly how many suicides occur on Canadian campuses. Those data are not tracked, and that’s a mistake. As the World Health Organization says, quality data is required for effective suicide prevention.
What we do know is that suicide is but the tip of the iceberg; mental-health woes are commonplace in our institutions of higher learning.
The numbers in the most recent National College Assessment Survey are troubling: 65 per cent of college and university students say they suffer from overwhelming anxiety; 46 per cent say are depressed to the point where it interferes with everyday life; 15 per cent self-injure by cutting or burning; 14 per cent of students say they have considered suicide; and 2.1 per cent say they have survived a suicide attempt.
There is no question that the pressures felt by young people today are often overwhelming. Nor is there any doubt they are not getting the help they need.
When we send a message that it’s okay to acknowledge your mental-health problems – as we do with campaigns such as Bell Let’s Talk – there is an implicit promise that there will be help available.
We have failed to fulfill that promise. Demand for therapy and counselling is through the roof, but the waits are punishingly long, and services are often unavailable and costly.
One can feel some sympathy for university and college administrators. They plead that they are funded as educational institutions, not health-care providers.
But at a certain point, that distinction becomes irrelevant. Filling students’ heads with knowledge is not enough; they need to leave school in good health, and with coping skills, too.
Of course, those teachings need to happen before students arrive in postsecondary institutions. Resilience is a learned skill, but we are not teaching it early enough or well enough. But that’s a long-term project.
In the short term, we have to act to prevent young people from hanging themselves and throwing themselves from university towers. We won’t do that by pretending it’s not happening, or by averting our gaze.
The silence about suicide on campuses is sickening – literally and figuratively.