Stress and isolation behind rising student suicides

What the late essayist Al Alvarez dubbed “the Savage God” has exacted a terrible price at the University of Ottawa in Canada: five suicides in the past 10 months. Over the past few years, universities across Ontario have grappled with similar numbers: four at Waterloo in southwestern Ontario in 2018 and four at the University of Toronto between 2018 and 2019.

“I don’t think any student does not know of another student who is struggling with mental health issues and many know of classmates and others who have considered suicide. I know I do,” says Sam Schroeder, the University of Ottawa (uOttawa) students’ union’s advocacy commissioner.

He said with each e-mail telling the campus of another suicide the situation has become more sombre. “It’s happened too much.”

In a statement in which he noted that uOttawa has hired six additional mental health counsellors to help eliminate wait times as well as produced a number of online tools, the university’s president, Jacques Frémont, pleaded with his students: “If you know someone who might be struggling, I encourage you to reach out to them. If you want to know the signs, please download our mental health fact sheets. . .. They have now been translated into eight languages, and they offer tips for identifying and helping people in distress. This is something that everyone can do immediately to increase knowledge and awareness.”

Felipe J Nagata, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, notes that improving mental health services means taking into account that the pressures students feel do not end at 5pm.

“Students have to be able to access help 24/7. Our stresses don’t end when we leave class. Panic attacks and extreme stress can occur at 3am while working on papers and assignments,” he says.

At uOttawa, part of the funding for the new mental health workers comes from fees that students voted to increase to provide for the new mental health care workers and a 24/7 help line.

Not all universities have been quick to act, however. After three students jumped to their deaths from the Bahen Centre for Information Technology in downtown Toronto, officials at the country’s largest university had temporary barriers installed. Even such an obvious solution was seen as too little too late by students who staged a protest at the University of Toronto in November 2019.

Shahin Imtiaz, a fifth-year computer science student said: “All that suffering was meaningless,” referring to the first students to jump off the building. “No-one learned anything from it, no-one did anything about it. It’s still happening. It’s really tough to reconcile; all this suffering is so needless.”

Only after chanting, “How many lives will it take before you fix your mistakes”, outside of the University of Toronto administration building were students allowed in to a meeting staff and administrators were holding, he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation at the time.

Teen and young adult suicide is not a new phenomenon. In the mid-1770s, following the publication of Johann von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (in which the eponymous emotionally overwrought protagonist kills himself), there were a number of copy-cat suicides in Paris. Police found copies of Goethe’s book in a number of the young men’s pockets.

Between 1990 and 2010, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, saw 15 students (and 12 others) jump to their deaths from foot bridges that span the campus’s famous gorges; in 2013 Cornell installed suicide nets that extend 15 feet out from the sides of each bridge.

A study conducted by Professor E David Klonsky at the University of British Columbia found that 19.4% of first-year students had seriously thought of suicide, while 14.7% had begun to make plans to kill themselves. Three and half per cent had actually tried, a concomitant number to the general Canadian population.

Researchers, university officials and student advocates all point to a number of stressors that lead some students to think of killing themselves, including competition for grades, worries about finances, fears of not getting a good job after graduating and panic attacks.

Students more isolated

Feelings of loneliness and isolation are also cited. Nagata believes that students today are more isolated than in the past.

“It used to be that students would gather together after class. When working on a project, for example, they had to be together. Now much of this work is done online with the result that students are not engaged in a community.”

Fostering community in a campus the size of uOttawa’s is not easy. “Ours is largely a commuter campus,” says Schroeder. “Students come here, go to class, go study in the library and go home.”

While looking at how clubs involve students in campus life, the association realised that the clubs’ structure dissuaded introverted students from joining. “It is hard for an introverted student to come to a club alone.” In an effort to deal with this, we are establishing buddy systems which invite students to join with someone they know.

Just as decades ago families and doctors covered up suicides (with such terms as ‘death by misadventure’) so that these people could be buried in hallowed ground, psychologists once believed that talking about suicide increased the risk of copy-cat attempts.

Recent studies, such as the 2005 study by Columbia University child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Madelyn S Gould of 2,343 high school students, show, however, that “neither distress nor suicidality [thinking about suicide] increased among the entire population of surveyed students or high-risk students who were asked about suicidal ideation [thoughts] or behaviour”.

According to Dr Mark Sinyor, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto: “Suicide prevention is about talking to people about feelings and recognising that everyone may be in distress at some point and needs an action plan. And if that plan doesn’t work, people need to know how to reach out for help.”

The goal, he adds, is to make it clear that “no one needs to die by suicide”.

When University World News asked Sinyor what could be done about students feeling lonely despite the time they spend interacting on social media, he proposed a decidely low-tech solution: “If you’re stuck on social media and feel lonely and don’t like it, the solution is to invite your friends to get together in person.”

Tools for helping friends in need

A decade before what Schroeder calls “a really tough year” which led uOttawa to create a one-stop shop for student mental health, Université Laval in Quebec City reorganised its student mental health services.

“We realised that we were missing many of the students who needed help,” says Madam Louise Careau, director of the university’s Student Help Centre.

In order to reach the students whom she likened to the submerged part of an iceberg, Université Laval instituted a Suicide Prevention Week during which there are activities for students where they are given tools on how to act when a friend or classmate indicates they are considering suicide.

Central to the university’s efforts is the student initiative Sentinel Program. “In this programme, students, many from psychology programmes, are trained to spot students who are having troubles with, for example, depression and direct them to where they can get help.”

The Sentinels are especially active around mid-terms and finals time. “They work through the library looking for students in distress,” says Careau.

Officials at several of the universities underlined the fact that international students were in some ways at a greater risk for depression – but were less likely to seek help. “For many,” says Schroeder, “seeking help for mental health issues is difficult because of cultural differences.”

Bridging this gap will require a great deal of hard work by both the university and the students’ association.