ideas for change · mental health

Campus suicide: we need to talk

My campus has suffered two suicides this term alone, in the very same student residence. This is a tragedy, twice over, and beyond measure.

I’m working on this post watching over my 38 first year students as they quietly read and edit one another’s research papers. It could have been any one of them.  Indeed this student was a colleague to many of my own. I cannot bear that.

We can none of us bear this. Something has got to change. All of us can do something, and it feels really urgent to me that we start right now.

First this: first year university is incredibly hard. It’s lonely, it can be very isolating, our egos take substantial hits from the massive change in pedagogy and expectation and cohort. Early adulthood is massively challenging as we figure out who we are. New romantic and sexual relationships. Breakups. Difficulties functioning in the much less structured university environment. Imposter syndrome. Regrets. A discovery of our own intellectual limits. There’s nothing easy about any of this, and it is abundantly clear that students aren’t getting what they need as they transition to adulthood, to independence, to university study, to changing ideas of who they are and what they want and what their capacities are. My school is known for the incredibly competitive nature of some of its most famous programs of study, and that only increases the pressure on those lucky enough to get in.

Mental health, mental illness, and suicidality are serious ongoing structural risks to university study. We need something more than ‘campus wellness days’ and a 1-in-5 that only has happy people in the video. We need more than working groups and statements of support. We need concrete counseling supports diffused across campus, and in the residences. We need training for staff in spotting and supporting students in crisis. We need faculty training in how to design curriculum and pedagogy that is less structurally likely to push people over the edge. We need programs that work to ensure that all students are supported toward graduation, rather than celebrating toughness by measuring drop out rates. We need universities that don’t, structurally, haze students with sink-or-swim social, institutional, or academic models.

The brother of the student who committed suicide this week posted a heartfelt plea to Reddit this week, full of despair and sadness and anger. The thread extends for pages, an honest and brutal conversation that we are just not seeing anywhere else on campus. Have I received official notification of this? I have not. I teach first year students in the same program. I found out from reddit. Unacceptable. That’s several days of Daily Bulletins with nothing. No memos. Nothing. For shame. The student newspaper has something, which I found after a colleague posted the Reddit thread on Facebook.

Silence is violence.

The Reddit post shows a grieving teenager adrift, but reaching out. We need to reach back. We need to extend our collective arms to support all our students. So many more of them are struggling than we are willing to acknowledge. We need to acknowledge the loss. To work towards mitigating the conditions that led us here. To do better. We can get through this together: suicide is preventable; suicidality is often momentary, but in that moment it can be fatal. Let’s get through those moments, together.

If you are Waterloo and you need help:

Kids Help Phone:

How to support a friend who may be suicidal:

9 thoughts on “Campus suicide: we need to talk

  1. Your sorrow at the loss of this young life is palpable, but the suggestion that you were somehow slighted because UW didn't notify you of the this student's suicide is difficult to understand. In your view, “silence is violence”. In many other peoples' eyes, not sharing the details of a suicide is regarded as good manners and guarding family privacy. There are times in life when, although we wish to know all, the sharing of that knowledge with the masses simply isn't fair or socially appropriate. Given that, I have no doubt that we are in agreement about the need for more mental health support, not only for university students, but for the population of this Region in general. I hope this young person found the solace in death that he could not, apparently, find in life. And I send my deepest condolences out to his friends and family that are left to wonder why…


  2. There was a professor AL Evans from St Pauls at Waterloo who offered a course on suicidology, years ago. He was a. Former RCMP officer who dealt with suicide. I of course signed up for the course after a good friend committed suicide. While I understand the comments above I do disagree. All of the professors, especially those whose students were colleagues of this student should have been notified right away. In the past suicide was hidden by families. It was seen as a failure by the families and friends that this somehow reflected back on them. As Professor Evans helped us understand suicide is not a reflection on family and friends. It is an individual who is suffering and only sees one way out. He described it as tunnel vision. He taught coping techniques to help someone while you are finding help. If the counselors and pyschiatrists who are working for the University are trained in suicide intervention they need to do far more work. Do they go to the different residences of first year students and present cases and coping techniques. Are Health Studies personnel all trained for the signs?
    The one thing he stressed if someone even jokingly says they feel like killing themselves. Do not laugh. Do not shrug it off as oh they are just kidding. Turn to them and let them know how upsetting that statement was to you. That you care deeply about them and would they like to talk to someone about those feelings. The loss of these young lives is tragic and the University has a responsibility to reach out and do better. I would be happy to sit as a community volunteer on any committee that is set up to address this issue.


  3. I've been asking for years why has the university traditionally tried to keep these events (and there is a long list of them) hush hush? By doing so the administration hopes to avoid bad publicity but through this approach only exacerbates the problem by sending the unwritten unspoken message that this is something we don't talk about. Yet year after year it goes on. Obviously it is a problem. Talking about it we can admit it is a problem and that is the first step in doing something about it. What a shame that it takes two unnecessary deaths to get this conversation started. Shame on UW.


  4. My stepson might well be one of your students. He's been talking with his father these past days, sometimes for hours. And he's doing well, mostly. He feels able to talk about almost anything, and then there are the years of counseling and therapy that helped supply him with a robust sense of self and a good supply of resilience. These are not absolute defenses against despair and thoughts of suicidality, but they're an advantage. We had also thought it was an advantage supporting his choice to attend *this* particular program at *this* particular school. “Surely,” we though, “they'll be used to dealing with kids like him.” That is, kids who are highly gifted in specific areas, and yet also asymmetrical in their genius. They might be somewhere on the autism spectrum and have difficulties parsing social/emotional encounters; they might have ADHD and be managing their own meds for the very first time; they might have learning disabilities or psychiatric diagnoses. Their genius, of course, is useful (and necessary) for propping up the program's “exceptional reputation.” Their vulnerabilities, however, are apparently something the program, and certainly the university, prefer to ignore. It's been very disappointing hearing about the institutional non-response to this tragedy. Treat these kids like whole people – not just sources of income and reputation-building. Match them to counselors on enrollment. Conduct intake interviews and regular check-ins. Make sure counselors are aware of milestones in the academic calendar that might contribute to the stress burden, and for kids identified as being at higher risk, check in *again.* We entrusted you with our child – not just his intellect, but the whole package.


  5. I understand and respect all of the comments that followed mine. But I really do think that it is not the job of “the school” to do all of these things. Professors are not counsellors. Sure, perhaps you could train them in a variety of specialized areas, but then you have students and their parents paying for counselling services and not education. I understand there is no easy fix here, and I certainly do not want to sound uncaring an cruel (as I am neither), but in a country where we don't have nearly enough money spent on the “education” part of post secondary education (let alone elementary and secondary schools), where are we getting the money from to train teaching staff (and others) in our colleges and universities to recognize and then facilitate the dealing with suicidal young adults? But I guess, that's part of the problem. Never enough money and not enough spent where, perhaps, it should be.


  6. I am a mother of two boys who attend Waterloo. One of them has struggled with depression for a few years. The other has never dealt with depression .. until he came to U of W. He has a wonderful sense of humor and is on a Varsity team as well as being a co-op Science student. Although he has achieved both academic and athletic success at Waterloo, he describes it as a “toxic” University. It is the atmosphere in this huge, competitive school that makes it worse than some of the other large universities. Waterloo doesn't need more counsellors. They need a system setup within their huge impersonal classrooms that allows classmates to bond immediately. This means the first 5 minutes and/or last five minutes of class — EVERY class. It can be done and there is time. Classrooms are the place to meet fellow students who share your interests and there are easy, quick ways to connect. You didn't even use these tried and true methods during orientation. Shame on you Waterloo .. it's not rocket science!!! You have the ability .. you just don't care enough to put forth the effort!


  7. Geralynn, I'm sorry your boys are having these problems. The classes I teach (in English) usually range from 25-40 students and we do lots of group work and I learn everyone's names. I think you're right that every class should offer the opportunity for meaningful human contact, beyond proving how smart we are — there are definitely ways to do this, even in big lectures, but we would have to prioritize this, and make it a core value. I think Waterloo has some work to do on this front.


  8. I am the mother of Chase Graham, the 19 year old that died on Monday. I would have 100% supported everyone on campus being informed of my sons suicide if only I had been asked.
    Do not believe that the lack of information had anything to do with our “wishes” because I was never contacted by the University unsolicited. I have witnessed the Queens University community spring into action for Chase's older brother this week as well as all of Chase's former classmates that now attend Queens. Waterloo is in such sharp contrast, I am horrified. Chase had no history of depression or mental illness and was a top student, funny and about to head into his first computer science co-op internship. Knowing now the climate at Waterloo, I feel like I sent Chase to the wolves. The stress and isolation coupled with a window that opened wide was like giving him a loaded gun. I desperately hope the students and faculty make immediate changes to an environment that created the perfect storm.


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